CROWN POINT, Ind. (AP) — Dressed in head-to-toe khaki, Eugene Taylor leaned over and patted the white pit bull at his feet.
“I got a big ol’ backyard for you,” he said. “I got a big ol’ house for you, baby. You gonna be all right. We got a mail man for you to bark at.”
The Gary man is one of the nonviolent misdemeanor inmates at Lake County Jail participating in a program that pairs them with animals at the no-kill Lake County Animal Control shelter and adoption center.
The program, touted as a money-saver for the county and a way for nonviolent offenders to get some fresh air and connect with animals, has the inmates — called trustees — cleaning the facility and caring for the cats and dogs housed there.
Taylor has worked in the program for just a few weeks, and the snow-white pit bull named Peter is one of his favorites.
“I am a dog person; I am a cat person; I’m an animal person,” Taylor told The Times. “I love animals.”
Taylor expects to be released in December, but he’s hoping for leniency from a judge for an earlier date.
If Peter is still there, Taylor wants to adopt him.
“Peter, if he’s here when I leave, oh, Peter’s coming home with me,” he said. “Yes, he is. But I want him to get out before I do.”
A team of six to nine trustees arrives two hours before the public in the morning to clean cages and prep the area, said Jack Sanchez, director of the facility.
“We’ve got a really good crew of guys right now,” he said. “I’m pretty proud of them.”
Participation in the program is coveted.
“We don’t mess around,” Sanchez said. “If somebody’s not working hard or doesn’t have the right attitude, you’re right back across the street because there’s 100 different guys that will fill your spot in a heartbeat.”
Before they’re accepted into the program, trustees are screened to make sure their record is void of certain crimes, including domestic abuse and animal cruelty.
Inmates can be seen walking the dogs in the grass around the shelter along 93rd Avenue or tugging on a rope with them in the fenced-in yard.
There are boundaries.
“There’s a certain perimeter that they have to be kept in,” Lake County Sheriff John Buncich said. “They know they’re not allowed to go out of there. We keep a very close watch on them. They’re closely monitored.”
It isn’t worth risking a bigger charge to flee, Sanchez said.
“They have a boundary they can’t go past, and I make it very clear that, ‘Look, man, if you get caught past that boundary, you’ll probably get charged with escape,‘” he said. “One of our big problems is making sure contraband is not handed off.”
The property is covered in cameras and the inmates are under watchful eyes, Sanchez said.
Fleeing is not a big problem.
“The guys seem to love it here,” Sanchez said. “They get out, they get fresh air. Some of the older gentlemen, it’s more of a release for them. They’re able to play with the dogs. Just sitting outside in the fresh air makes all the world of difference.”
Buncich said the program is a success.
“It takes a lot of work, especially around the shelter,” he said. “Animals need tending to. Cleaning up is a constant chore.”
The program saves the county from paying four or five part-timers at $8 an hour, he said.
“They walk them; they take care of them,” Buncich said.
Several inmates have said it gives them a new perspective on life, he said.
Taylor plans to volunteer at the shelter after his release.
“I’m going to come back and walk the dogs at least twice a week,” he said. “They got a good thing. I see other people that come and they volunteer, and that inspired me to come out here and spend a couple quality hours with the dogs and the cats.”
Participating in the program could help a trustee’s case by demonstrating he is an outstanding inmate, Buncich said.
Animal control is a priority, said Lake County Deputy Chief of Police Dan Murchek.
“Since Sheriff Buncich has come in office, we’ve made great improvements at the animal control,” Murchek said. “It’s one of our priorities. The staff and the volunteers have done a great job here and continue to do so, and we couldn’t do the work without them.”
Information from: The Times, http://www.thetimesonline.com