Therapy dogs ease tensions in Newfoundland’s troubled Victorian-era prison

By Sue Bailey, The Canadian Press

ST. JOHN’S, N.L. – Brandon Phillips smiled as he fed treats to Roscoe, a Portuguese water dog who visits inmates once a month at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary.

Phillips, 29, is housed in the notorious jail in St. John’s, N.L., as he faces trial in November for first-degree murder in a shooting at a bar a short walk from where he’s now held. He has pleaded not guilty.

“Sometimes, you know, you can be feeling down and out and it just kind of lifts your spirits a lot,” he said Thursday as reporters were invited to take in a therapy dog session.

“To get this one little positive (thing), will really boost you in the long run … so when we get back out in society that we’ve got high spirits and we can really get back to community, as opposed to just being treated negatively in here all the time.”

Phillips, who’s accused of killing 63-year-old Larry Wellman, a former firefighter who tried to intervene during an alleged robbery two years ago, knows there’s little public sympathy for inmates.

Still, programs like animal therapy are a vital link to normal life, he said.

“It’s supposed to be all about rehabilitation.”

Dogs were first brought into the penitentiary last April and have been a major stress relief, Phillips said.

“I love all animals — cats, dogs. I had a rabbit growing up.”

Susan Green, an addictions counsellor and social worker at Her Majesty’s Penitentiary, said animal therapy, yoga, meditation and art programs are among new efforts to ease tensions.

“For all of our problems and some of the things you see on the media, we are a community,” she told reporters. “For a lot of men that are serving time here, they’re away from their family, they’re away from their friends.

“It can be a lonely place. The dogs provide just a really lovely, natural connection, non-judgmental attention and affection. And that’s something we all need.”

The jail’s original stone structure dates back to 1859, and successive add-ons have created what critics say is an unwieldy “tinderbox” that should be razed.

There were 41 assaults there last year, double the number reported the year before. Other major incidents in recent years include the vicious ambush in February 2014 of an inmate in the chapel and a riot the following June that trashed a living unit, causing tens of thousands of dollars in damages.

Provincial officials have repeatedly asked Ottawa for help to replace Her Majesty’s Penitentiary since it houses some low-risk federal offenders. But plans for a new building have stalled since the oil price crash gutted Newfoundland and Labrador’s finances.

Green said the penitentiary is at capacity with 175 men, most of them serving provincial terms up to two years less a day, along with those awaiting court dates on remand.

Therapy dogs Roscoe and Lux, a sweet and very affectionate pit bull mix, also visited a separate unit where eight women are being held. They’re staying at the penitentiary due to overflow at the Correctional Centre for Women in Clarenville, about 90 minutes northwest of St. John’s.

“Animals coming in is kind of like a highlight of our day,” said inmate Sonia McKinnon, 31. She said she has served 36 days for petty theft charges and is to be released soon.

McKinnon knelt down as Roscoe rolled over for a belly rub.

“I love animals. I love the attention that they give you.”

Lux was accompanied by Michelle Tarrant, a pet therapy volunteer who was making her third visit to the penitentiary.

“I feel like there’s a lot of stigma and there’s a lot of stress and anxiety around this type of environment,” she said.

Tarrant has seen over and over how a dog somehow opens people up, starting conversations about pets they once had or hope to return to.

“I honestly never did feel that way,” she said when asked if she’s ever nervous to be around inmates convicted or accused of sometimes horrible crimes.

“I was excited to bring her in and just have someone else appreciate her as much as I do.”

Follow @suebailey on Twitter.

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