CROWLEY COUNTY, Colo. — The cold days inside the Crowley County Correctional Facility will be a little warmer this winter for Joseph Morón. He's raising a 3-month-old Labrador/Golden Retriever puppy named Caprice through a special program at the prison.
"It's the best choice I've made," Morón said.
The dogs receive basic training to become service animals later in life. The program is a partnership between CoreCivic, the facility operator and the non-profit group Canine Companions.
"We have them for about a year," Morón said. "After we teach them the 33 commands, they'll move on to California or wherever they came from for advanced training."
Morón first learned about the program in 2011 while serving time at Kit Carson Correctional Facility. When he arrived at CCCF, a fellow inmate he knew from Kit Carson recommended him for the program.
“The joy it gives me and the satisfaction of being able to do something for my community and to help the person that ends up with the dog at the end of this,” he said.
Unit manager Ashely Macek launched the partnership in 2019. She described the types of commands the dogs learn during their their training.
"We'll start with them learning their name," Macek said. "At 8 weeks old, the most important command is for them to learn their name so they know who they are."
The dogs then learn to sit, lay down, shake and speak on command. They also learn specialized commands like "move." With their front paws resting on block, the dogs will walk around the edge on their hind legs when the trainer says "move."
Macek explained this command can be developed into more advanced techniques when the dogs reach professional training.
"They'll learn how to turn on a light switch for somebody, or hit a doorbell, those kinds of things," she said.
Macek has seen a positive transformation at Crowley County correctional since the program began, both in the dog trainers and throughout the facility.
"These guys can’t go anywhere without being stopped three of four times and asked if they can pet the dog.”
Morón sees that same transformation in himself.
"It's taught me a lot of responsibility, it's taught me to nurture," he said. "You know I haven't been the greatest father. So being in the program, I've learned how to take care of something besides myself."
Caprice is the fourth dog he's trained. His first full service dog was named Shawna III.
"She was with a man that's a paraplegic in Oregon, and I think she has retired by now," Morón said. "Before that was Gracie and she's with a 9-year-old autistic boy in San Jose, California."
The most recent dog he trained was Raina who graduated from the program in October. She is now in professional training in California. So far, 15 dogs have graduated from the program at CCCF.
"When we get that phone call, when the dog's graduated, that's what does it. It's the feeling of, I helped that person," he said.
Training a service dog is a big responsibility. Inmates who are part of the program are included in CCCF's incentive pod.
"In order to be in the incentive pod, there’s certain standards that you have to meet," Morón said. "But above and beyond that, to be a dog handler, there’s even more.”
He may not get to see Caprice reach graduation. He's scheduled to be released in early 2024. Knowing the positive impact the program has had on his life, Morón readily encourages other offenders to sign up.
“From my background, gang member, violent, knucklehead; I see guys like that and I kind of gravitate to ‘em. Like I try to save them. This program will save you,” he said.