EDWARD PARENT, 31, is doing 10 years at a medium-security prison here for killing a teenage girl while drunk driving. Chuck, who dozes in Parent's cell, has committed no crime.
Chuck is a Labrador retriever, one of dozens of dogs being trained by prison inmates in a fast-growing programme that provides "service dogs" to help US veterans who have lost arms and legs or suffered brain injuries in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The Iraq war is going to change the whole demographics of the disabled population in this country," said Sheila O'Brien, executive director of the National Education for Assistance Dog Service (NEADS), which has trained dogs to assist people who are deaf or physically disabled since 1976.
O'Brien tapped the nation's swelling prison population for help since 1998, after some persuading by then Massachusetts prison commissioner Michael Maloney. She's now convinced inmates can train dogs like professionals and wants to build on the programme's 10 prisons by adding three more.
"The prison programme just about cuts the time needed for formal training in half." she said.
The number of young, physically disabled US veterans is surging. Already, at least 180,000 veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars have applied for disability benefits. O'Brien reckons thousands are wounded badly enough to need assistance.
"We are gearing up to meet that need and one way we are doing that is by doubling the number of puppies that we are placing in prison," she said.
Inmates stay with the dogs 24 hours a day for about a year, meeting with an expert trainer from NEADS once a week and even brushing their puppy's teeth at night, before the dogs enter two months of more advanced training with professionals.
"Chuck is like my son. I treat him as that," said Parent, who is serving a 10-year sentence at the John J. Moran medium security prison in Rhode Island for killing a teenage woman with his car while driving under the influence of alcohol.
"I protect him from other dogs. Other inmates. From himself. I take care of him just as I would my child. I feed him. I bathe him. Everything," he said. "What it's done for me is unbelievable." "Some people who you perceive to be the hardest hardcore inmates melt when they see them," said Jay Young, a convicted murderer who is serving 40 years. "When the less aggressive inmates see that, it makes the place calmer."