Interview: Dogs on the Inside, Documentary About A Prison Program for Rescue Dogs

Posted on February 10, 2015 at 7:00 am

Dogs on the Inside” is a profoundly moving documentary about a program that teaches prisoners how to care for rescue dogs.  Seeing the dogs and the men in prison learn patience and trust from each other is touching and inspiring.  I imagine it will attract the attention of Hollywood as it would make a great feature film.

The documentary is available today on iTunes, Google Play, Amazon Instant Video, VUDU, and I spoke to directors Brean Cunningham and Douglas Seirup and Candido Santiago, a graduate of the program who appears in the film.

How did you first learn about this program?

BC: Doug and I were looking for a story about dogs that we wanted to be both compelling and kind of informative about how great dogs are. But we wanted it to have a little bit of an edge and we discovered this prison dog training program and thought it was both a no-brainer in the sense that the program existed and taking stray dogs and pairing them with prison inmates, I thought it was interesting. I think that was the story to bring to life on film.

What did the inmates learn from the dogs?

BC: I think the biggest thing that they learned was understanding, kind of getting outside of their own heads and learning about the benefits of helping others and in this case it was dogs.

DS: I think the most important thing they learned was that they are still human. If an image were to pop in your head of an inmate you might just think that of something negative and I think what this film does is remind people that wherever you are, if you are even an inmate it does not matter, you’re still human.

CS: From an inmate’s point of view, it was more often learning how to cope and deal with not only the other cons but also with dogs as well and growing with them as well as a person.

What are the qualities that are required for the inmates who participate?

Copyright 2015  Bond/360
Copyright 2015 Bond/360

DS: Before they can be allowed into the program, each of the inmates is thoroughly screened. What they are looking for is patience, responsibility, and trust, and most importantly caring. And overall they cannot be violent, they cannot have any type of violent history.

Are there other programs like this throughout the country?

DS: There are and since we started filming over three years ago they have been continuing to pop up all over the country.

And are there any studies being done of how effective they are or monitoring the participants after they leave?

BC: Yes. There is a great program called New Leash On Life USA, based in Philadelphia. And they are the gold standard for this type of prison program because they have measurable results and the recidivism rate for prison inmates coming out of Philadelphia prison system goes down about 50% by comparison to the average. These guys are actually staying out of jail because of what they do helps them get internships, help get them placed in jobs in animal care and those kinds of things. So it is much about a person as it is about an animal.

Do many of them chose to continue professionally with animal care when they get out?

CS: I want to be a zookeeper. I love animals in general. The person that gets into these dog programs, they have got to love animals first and foremost. If I could, I would own a farm and adopt all of them. Because I love animals in general but reality is that I can only take the step of helping the dogs that are in shelters. I’m going to be donating my time doing that in a shelter out in Springfield, Massachusetts. I’m going to get my education and try to see if I can become the very best zookeeper that there ever was in history.

Candido, tell me a little bit about your first experience in working with one of the dogs.

CS: My first experience was with Sam, who was a very scared dog, he was very skittish, he used to tremble when he first got there. He used to growl when anyone got close to him and it took me a little bit of time to actually get him comfortable with me. What I mean by that is, it took me a few days but I got half my body inside the crate in order for him to feel comfortable with me. Then once I was able to finally caress him and rub him, I guess he looked at me like “Wow! You are not what I expected.” So with that being said I carried on and everything, he was a Chihuahua and by the end of the term he got adopted to a very young, very beautiful kindhearted person. She got married, the lady that is Sam’s owner and they sent me pictures of Sam in a tuxedo, so I’m guessing he was the Best Dog.

When an animal has been abused and is afraid of people, how do you gain their trust?

CS: I know that for me it took a lot of patience first. I looked at Sam the way I looked at my own life. I could relate to the way he felt, the way he thought probably. And in the beginning when I tried to get close to him and he growls, I got up, kept walking around doing whatever I had to do in the room but I still talked to him and I told him “Don’t worry about it. I got you, I’ll take care of you, sooner or later you’ll come around.” And that’s basically it, you have got to have a lot patience and a lot of love for any animal that goes through something like that. I mean it’s horrendous to begin with but you have got to have a lot of understanding too behind it. I’ll say this too, it took a little bit of bribery too. I used to give them treats, and I mean, who doesn’t like treats? I love treats. I love candy bars so you give me a candy bar and I’ll do anything for one bar, how about that?

So you can identify.

CS: Yes, I could definitely, with Sam and with every dog that kept coming through there.

And what was the most important thing that you learned from the training that you got about working with the dogs?

CS: I learned a lot actually. The trainer that we had, her name is Paulette, she is a very good trainer. She taught us and it was installed in me by her to have patience but be firm, to be loving and caring at the same time. But also to try to understand their point of view as much as possible. It’s about them primarily, you’ve got to put them first before yourself. It’s like having a baby, when you have a baby, your baby comes first before yourself.

What do you want people to learn from this film?

DS:  If they could adopt a dog that would be wonderful but that’s a lot of responsibility so I think one of the things that people can take away from this film is that they have the opportunity to make a difference on their own. And it is attainable for them, it is not too far out of reach for each person. And not only that but to remind people that everyone is equal and to believe in second chances.

BC:  I think for me it is to remind people that there’s some really good things going on around the world. That is one of the motivations we had in looking for a story. It just goes to show that with effort and the right thoughts we can really create the magic in this world.

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Directors Documentary Interview

The Green Mile

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

It’s pretty easy to make a movie where the hero saves the Earth from asteroids or blasts the bad guys into smithereens, because those kinds of battles give us lots of very cool stuff to look at. It’s a lot harder to make a movie like this one, holding our attention with heroism in small moments and unlikely places. Teens, who often feel that the problems of the world are too overwhelming to address, can learn from this movie that a small courtesy can have an enormous impact.

Paul Edgecombe (Tom Hanks) is a Depression-era Louisiana prison guard. His responsibility is the prisoners on Death Row, called “The Green Mile” because of the color of the floor between the cells and the electric chair. New prisoner John Coffey (Michael Clarke Duncan) is a huge black man convicted of raping and murdering two little girls. He is a gentle man with a mysterious power to heal.

Edgecombe treats the prisoners with kindness, partly because it is the best way to maintain order, but also because he is a fair and compassionate man. In sharp contrast, another guard is petty and cruel, and a far more evil man than any of the prisoners. The plot veers into melodrama at times, with at least one coincidence that is overly convenient, but the humanity of the guards keeps the movie on track most of the time.

Talk to teens about the circumstances and views of the world that lead people to these different approaches and the way that the movie helps us to understand each of them. What do we learn from the way each character sees the mouse? What does Coffey’s character symbolize? (Note his initials.) Edgecombe is confronted with a real dilemma because he believes that Coffey is innocent, but is unable to save him. What facts led to his decision? What else could he have done? Does he become a sort of prisoner, too?

This is a thoughtful, intelligent movie with outstanding direction. Hanks is, as always, the American ideal, just, kind, capable, decent. Bonnie Hunt, for once is relieved of her usual Eve Arden-style role, and her performance as Edgecombe’s loyal, wise, patient, and very loving wife is a pleasure to watch. Doug Hutchison is terrific as Percy, the nephew of the governor’s wife who is assigned to work for Edgecome, and whose combined arrogance and insecurity lead to disaster. And Michael Clarke Duncan, one of the highlights of “Armageddon,” is deeply moving, showing us both Coffey’s innocence and his dignity.

Families will want to talk about the idea that a person might have an extraordinary talent to heal, where that power might come from, and what the responsibilities and burdens might be. Must that ability be accompanied, as it is in John Coffey, with the agonizing experience of “feeling the pain of the world?” Can a person be a healer without experiencing the pain he relieves in others? Must a person whose entire existence is about healing be willing to destroy? What can be healed, and what can not? And why set this story on Death Row? The characters tell us that “What happens on the Mile stays on the Mile. Always has.” What rules are different in these direst of circumstances, and why?

Parents should know that the movie has a horrifyingly graphic execution scene, when the wicked guard has his revenge on a prisoner who taunted him. And they should talk to teens who see the movie about Coffey’s wish to be put out of his misery, which could be seen by sensitive kids as an argument in favor of suicide.

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Crime Drama

The Hurricane

Posted on December 13, 2002 at 5:16 am

Rubin “Hurricane” Carter triumphed over a brutal childhood to become a contender for the middleweight boxing championship, through pure determination. Then, wrongfully sentenced to three life terms for murders he did not commit, he used the same discipline, integrity, and ineradicable sense of dignity that served him as a fighter to survive in prison.

Denzel Washington’s dazzling portrayal as Carter makes us see the man’s courage and heart. And the astounding story of chance, loyalty, and dedication that led to his release gives us a chance to see true heroism and redemption.

Carter emerged from his first trumped up prison sentence (for running away from an abusive reformatory) determined to make his past work for him by making sure he would never return. He becomes a powerful boxer by channeling his rage into his fights: “I didn’t even speak English; I spoke hate, and those words were fists.” When his worst nightmare is realized, after a racist policeman coerces witnesses and suppresses evidence, and he is sent back to prison, he turns to that same focus to keep his core self free. He refuses to wear a prison uniform. And he refuses to accept privileges so that nothing can be taken away from him. He says, “My own freedom consisted of not wanting or needing anything of which they could provide me,” and “it is very important to transcend the places that hold us.” He makes a new goal: to “do the time,” meaning to do it his own way. If that requires cutting himself off from anything that makes him feel vulnerable, including his family and everyone else in the world outside the prison, he will. He says, “This place is not one in which humanity can survive — only steel can. Do not weaken me with your love.”

Meanwhile, a boy named Lasra Martin, living in Canada with people who took him in to provide him with an opportunity to get a better education, buys his first book for twenty-five cents. It is Carter’s book written in prison, The Sixteenth Round. Lasra writes his first letter. Carter answers.

They develop a close relationship, and Lasra introduces Carter to his Canadian friends, who become so committed to him that they move to New Jersey, vowing not to leave until he goes with them. They uncover new evidence, the lawyers develop a new theory, and finally, 20 years later, Carter is freed.

The devotion of the Canadians and the lawyers is truly heroic and very moving — the movie gently contrasts them with the celebrities who stopped by long enough to get their photographs taken, and then moved on to other causes. But, contrary to many “victims of racism saved by rightous white people” movie portrayals, the real hero of this story is Carter himself. In his first days in prison, locked in “the hole” for refusing to wear a prison uniform, we see him forging the steel that will keep his essence free, no matter how many locks are on the door. Then, in scenes that are almost unbearably moving, we see that he can still allow himself to hope and to need others. He has protected himself from dispair and bitterness in refusing to be a victim.

Families should talk about the struggles for racial equality in the 1960’s and 1970’s, and about what has and has not changed. And they should talk about the way that Carter keeps his spirit alive, in part by identifying himself with prisoners of conscience like Nelson Mandela and Emile Zola, and by writing, “a weapon more powerful than my fists can ever be.” Teens might want to read Carter’s book or the book Lazarus and Hurricane, which was the basis for the movie. They will also appreciate another dazzling performance by Washington in another tribute to an extraordinary historical figure, Malcolm X.

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