March marks a special time of year for the Hiland Mountain Correctional Center (HMCC), when a select group of women get the privilege of caring for Iditarod dogs that have been dropped from the race. The Dog Project began in 1974 and is in its 46th year of operation at Hiland, where it continues to act as an incentive opportunity for inmates and a way for the women to give back to their community.
Sarah Hayes, an inmate at HMCC, has been participating in the Dog Project for the past 3 years and enjoys not only the break in routine from normal day-to-day life in the institution but also the sense of purpose it gives her. “I have this drive to want to be useful,” she says, “which is hard to accomplish when you’re in prison.” Two crews of seven women care for the dogs over the two-week period – handling their paperwork, feeding them and keeping the area where they are housed clean. “We’re doing something in here that has a positive effect out there,” says Hayes.
Sgt. Dena Yuill, the Special Projects and Disciplinary Sergeant at HMCC, says the Dog Project is something different that the inmates look forward to every year. Getting the opportunity to participate is a privilege, and a certain criterion must be met for the women to be admitted to the program. Inmates must be sentenced, working, with a “minimum” custody level ranking and have no infractions for a certain amount of time.
Sgt. Yuill has been running the Dog Project and others like it for 8 years at Hiland. Running activities like these are vital to the reentry process and successfully transitioning back into the community. Janice Weiss, the Reentry Program Manager for the Department of Corrections, says, “Activities like these are great behavioral motivators for inmates because it is an honor for them to participate. It teaches them responsibility and accountability to someone or something other than themselves, while also providing a sense of being needed.” She says these factors play a significant role in helping them feel a part of a community, and that feeling will carry over after they are released. In addition, they practice on-the-job skills—arriving on time, being prepared for the work that needs to be done, and following directions.
Hiland can house up to 60 dogs at a time, although handlers usually pick up their dogs within just a few days. The facility anticipates continuing to receive and care for dogs through the weekend.