I went to prison and all I got were these adorable puppy pictures.

I went to the Hazelton Federal Penitentiary for the first time last November, when I photographed the paws4people graduation of service dogs trained by inmates.

Before I went, I have to admit to being worried. And I had plenty to be anxious about.  This was a shoot where I knew the lighting conditions and backgrounds were going to suck and I was afraid the subjects might not respond positively to me – potentially a recipe for disaster.

The boy I have mentored for 9 years offered up some advice.  “Don’t be nice to any of the prisoners.”  HUH?  “If you’re nice to them, they’ll think you’re soft.” And he had other advice for me as well. “You should wear sneakers.”  Sneakers?  Why sneakers?  “You may have to run away from a prisoner with a gun.”

As it turned out, I felt more like I was making new friends at an afternoon tea, than photographing an event at a prison.  The inmates/trainers responded like anyone else having their pictures taken; self-consciousness melting in the face of the camera lens and delight that their accomplishment was considered significant enough to be documented.

It was bittersweet event, huge pride overshadowed by enormous sadness for the impending loss, as each graduating dog would be moving on to his/her “person.”  The experience was among the top three most moving in my life.

Melissa Buckles exchanges a warm hug of appreciation with her daughters’ dog’s trainer.


But back to the puppies. I was really looking forward to seeing the transition of the puppies from the paws4people house – to the inmates in the big house to begin training.  Armed with my camera and a small video light – I had already experienced the prison’s dark rooms and fluorescent lighting and I knew I would want some extra light – off I went.

I found myself enjoying the company of old and new friends as the women bonded with the puppies they would be responsible for training over the coming months.

Note how tiny the pups were at birth: Ready to be released INTO prison at around 10 weeks:

Kyria Henry, Co-Founder and Deputy Executive Director, paws4people, gives up the first puppy to his trainer.

Hellooo?  How long did you expect me to hold it??

I swear I could hear that refrain from the Annie song, “I think I”m gonna like it here!”

Training begins NOW.


I will be going back to the prison in January to document what the puppies have learned.

Note: While I’m limited in what images of the inmates/trainers I can share directly, You can click here to see a slideshow from last year’s graduation that includes the inmate/trainers, dogs and recipient families, posted by paws4people. And, read about the history of paws4people and the great work the organization does here.

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2 Responses to I went to prison and all I got were these adorable puppy pictures.

  1. Pingback: Lilly: Four-legged single working Mom |

  2. Pingback: Three week old puppies go to prison for training |

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