A new program in New Hampshire is pairing puppies with prisoners.
Four puppies are now living at the Merrimack County Jail, and their inmate handlers say the program is helping them turn their lives around.
Shasta-Ann Pepper says it can be lonely inside her cell, and thinking about the people she’s hurt can be crippling.
“Jail can be rough. It strips you down,” she told NBC10 Boston. “You have nothing, you have no one.”
While the recovering heroin addict tries to right her wrongs, she’s found some unexpected support in her four-legged friend, who she calls “Chance.”
The chocolate lab is one of the four puppies that have been paired with four inmates working toward re-entering the community.
The puppy program is the first of its kind in New Hampshire.
The inmates train the puppies in basic obedience for several months, before the animals go back to Exeter-based Hero Pups for more rigorous training as service dogs. They will then go to a veteran or first responder who needs them.
But for now, the greatest need is at the jail, where many inmates, like Pepper, have lost their way.
“He just gave me purpose again,” Pepper said. “To help and give back.”
Department of Corrections administrators say they’ve seen a positive change in Pepper and other inmates since the puppies arrived a month ago.
“They have a reason to get up every day and they have someone who loves them unconditionally and that’s new for most,” said jail assistant superintendent Kara Wyman.
Hero Pup Founder Laura Barker says these programs reduce depression and anxiety inside prisons and can even lower rates of recidivism.
“People aren’t coming back to jail nearly as much if they’ve participated in the puppy program,” Barker said. “We know first-hand the healing power of a dog’s unconditional love.”
Pepper, who is locked up for robbery and assault, says her family hasn’t spoken to her in a long time.
“I honestly do not blame them, but with him, I feel like I have somebody,” Pepper said.
A puppy with the most perfect name is giving this mom a second chance when no one else would.
“Chance, c’mon,” Pepper said to her pup. “I can’t take back the things that I’ve done, the family I’ve hurt, but hopefully, I can show them that I’ve changed.”
Pepper is eligible for work release toward the end of the month.
She says because of Chance, she’s got a plan for her future.
Once she reconnects with her three kids, she will start focusing on helping animals in need.