Photographs and Text by Fred R. Conrad
Fred R. Conrad is a freelance photographer based in New York.
The Louisiana State Penitentiary in Angola is America’s largest maximum-security prison. Before it became a prison, Angola was a plantation. It’s 18,000 acres are worked today by about 5,400 inmates, many of them there for life. Dogs have always been an integral part of prison life at Angola. They patrol the prison’s borders, sniff for narcotics, search for escapees and provide support to the infirm and elderly. There are 55 dogs currently either on active duty or in training.
The time it takes to train a dog for narcotics detection varies. It can be as short as a month but generally takes about six to eight weeks of daily training for certification. The challenge for narcotics dogs is the number of substances they are used to detect. Years ago it was just marijuana, which is very aromatic and easy to smell. With so many more types of narcotics being trafficked, it is more of a challenge. Narcotics dogs are used during shakedowns, when a dormitory is vacated and searched. They are also used for random checks of cars and people. Angola also now uses body scanning machines to help in the detection of contraband.
In an effort to create a fiercer security dog, the prison experimented with breeding prison security dogs and wolves. The program was started by the former warden Burl Cain, who thought it would produce a superior dog that would prevent prisoners from escaping. Wolves are pack animals and very shy around people. They would sooner run away from an escapee as chase him down. Johnny Bert Dixon, who was put in charge of the breeding program, said: “I told Warden Cain that it took thousands of years to breed the wolf out of a dog and make them useful for people. Why are you going backwards? And wouldn’t you know it, when the experiment failed the warden blamed me.”
Maj. Keavin Tanner was brought to Angola to train new corrections officers. Two years ago, at the request of the new warden, Major Tanner and his wife, Master Sgt. Sarah Tanner, created the Prisoners Assisting Warrior Services program (PAWS), a volunteer program that trains service dogs for veterans. Neither they nor the inmate dog trainers, who also have full-time jobs within the prison, get paid for their work. Major Tanner supervises 23 inmate dog trainers and 14 dogs. The dogs train for as long as a year to master 30 commands and seven help tasks.
The relationship between the dogs and their trainers is intimate and sustaining. The dogs are with their trainers 24/7, and as a result are more successful. Normally fewer than half of the dogs in training are certified as service dogs. The certification success rate at Angola is over 75 percent.