This article first appeared in the July 24, 2008 edition of THE WATERFORD TIMES. On May 21, 2009 the Connecticut Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists announced Nora & Porter: Big Dog Therapy at York Correctional as the 2nd Place winner in the community non-daily feature division of the Excellence in Journalism Awards.
Nora & Porter: Big Dog Therapy at York Correctional
Waterford resident offers pet therapy to York inmates
By Jason J. Marchi
When Margaret Ormond, assistant principal at Norwich Technical High School, adopted an English mastiff named Porter four years ago, she became inspired by a friend who owned a therapy dog she would take into the Janet S. York Correctional Institution in Niantic and by a book Wally Lamb wrote about teaching writing skills to the female prisoners at York.
After Margaret read Lamb’s book, she was so touched by the plight of the inmates at York she decided to approach the administrators to see about bringing Porter into the prison as a therapy dog.
Margaret, a Waterford resident, was first introduced to the English mastiff breed back in the 1990s when her son, who’d just gotten married, bought a mastiff puppy. When he and his new wife came to visit with the dog, Margaret says, “They walked in with what appeared to me to be a full-grown dog. Her name was Miss Remington, and she was a beautiful brindle color. As things go, I ended up with the dog.”
When Miss Remington passed away in 2003, Margaret found herself in an empty nest.
“So I put in for a mastiff rescue and I received a call from a family in Coventry who had two mastiffs named Nora and Porter. They were looking for a home at the time just for Porter, because he was more feisty. They brought him down, he took over and got up on the couch, I gave him a piece of cheese, and he was mine forever.”
A year later Margaret took Porter to classes to become a therapy dog for convalescent homes. While Porter made his weekly visits to cheer up the confined senior citizens, Margaret remembered a friend who had the first and only therapy dog at the mental health unit at York. When that German shepherd died, the dog therapy program ended.
“I remember my friend, Ellen, telling me how fulfilling it was,” Margaret says. “Here I was with Porter, a therapy dog, so I decided to approach York and see if they were interested.”
From the start Porter was a big hit with the inmates in the mental health department, and it was not long before correctional officials asked Margaret if she’d take Porter for visits into the long-term maximum security building, otherwise known as Zero South.
“The lieutenant in charge at the time thought the women needed more stimulation and positive activities,” Margaret says.
After a year of just Porter and Margaret’s visits to York, Margaret ended up adopting Porter’s older sister, Nora since her owners were relocating to Virginia, and she now had two therapy dogs on her hands.
Inside Zero South
On the day the Times had exclusive access to follow Nora and Porter on one of their visits to York, Margaret says, “Each time I pull into the front security gate Nora and Porter get so happy. They know where they’re going.”
It’s a hot sunny Saturday when we enter the sterile prison, officially known as the Janet S. York Correctional Institution. The expansive compound is the only prison in the state to hold female inmates, nearly 1,400 of them, and most of them adults. The facility also holds youthful offenders (ages 16 and 17) and some juveniles (ages 9 to 15).
It’s a long walk for the dogs on such a hot day from the entry area of the main compound to Zero South—the Level 4 maximum security building where long-term inmates are housed—and we are escorted by Counselor-Supervisor Erin Murphy-Pelletier.
The walk is made harder by the fact that Nora and Porter are senior citizens. Porter at 7 1/2 years and Nora, his senior by a year, are both approaching their 10-year life expectancy.
Once the dogs enter the common area outside the cell block tiers, several inmates become excited as they wait on the other side of the cell block doors. One inmate waves in anticipation from behind the glass wall.
A corrections officer at the duty officer’s desk opens the doors from behind a large console panel, and the doors to each of the four cell tiers open and seven young women enter the common visitor’s area. The rest stay behind, paying no regard to the canine visitors.
There is a rush of smiles and hugs among the women as they greet Margaret and her mastiffs.
The dogs finally have a chance to rest and immediately lie down on the cool, white-speckled linoleum tile floor beside one of four fixed tables and chairs (there is nothing in the room that is not bolted down). Two of the inmates immediately fetch bowls of water for the panting dogs.
Corrections Officer Conrad and Murphy-Pelletier are seated at the duty desk. The inmates become so focused on Nora and Porter it is as though the officers have vanished into the background, or they are not there at all.
While the inmates are seated on the floor with the dogs, Margaret shares stories of Nora’s and Porter’s latest adventures.
“I took the dogs to the beach and Porter jumped right in but Nora didn’t want to get her toes wet,” Margaret says, and the women laugh.
On one recent visit Margaret told the women she’d just gotten engaged so they wanted to know how her fiance, Larry, likes the dogs. “I told them, I think Larry is the right man because he showed up on the first date with two humongous dog bones.”
The inmates get to live vicariously through Margaret’s personal stories about the world outside their sterile confines—a world they otherwise only get to glimpse through a television or the pages of magazines.
While they talk more, huddled around the dogs, Kim and Jessica take turns painting red nail polish on Nora’s toenails, front and back, which complement the pinkish flower on her collar and her white pearl necklace.
Porter, sporting a U.S. Marines emblazoned bandana around his neck, lies on his side while Jennifer runs a small brush through his fur. Nicole directs others to bring more water for the dogs.
After a few more laughs, Margaret says, “Who shares a birthday with Prince Charles and my brother?”
The women look quizzical.
“Porter!” she answers. Plans are then made among the women to make a meatloaf birthday cake for Porter’s Nov. 14 party.
Near the end of the visit, Jessica runs off to bring back a paper bag filled with apples and small plastic cups of peanut butter the women have saved up over the past two weeks. Porter has no trouble getting to his feet when he smells food, and Fernanda joins Jessica in feeding the dogs the peanut butter and apples.
For an hour and a half, any misdeeds of the past that have brought these seven young women to this prison seem to be forgiven if not forgotten, and Porter and Nora, two canine ambassadors of unconditional love, clearly hold no malice, no vengeance, no judgment whatsoever toward these prisoners.
Lockdown comes at 2:30 p.m.—in preparation for the officer’s shift change at 3—and Porter’s and Nora’s fans are ordered back to their cell tiers.
During the long walk from Zero South back to the administration building, Nora is the one who is tired this time and lingers behind, puffing along like an old train engine.
We stop at the back door to the kitchen, by Porter’s choice.
“He always knows where the food is,” Margaret says.
One of the eight or so women to emerge from behind the solid double doors asks if she can be in the program to receive a visit from Porter and Nora. There is some discussion about the limits of the dogs’ weekly visits so the short answer is, unfortunately, “No.” Margaret and her dogs could not possibly visit every building in the compound.
Back at the main exit, more than two dozen corrections officers file out, heading for home. Lt. O’Hanlon has a cheeseburger for each dog, a treat he has waiting for them on each visit.
“I’ve been very fortunate in my life,” Margaret says. “I came from a good family. I grew up in a time when things were simpler. I don’t know why any of these women are here. I don’t ask any questions and I don’t want to know. You don’t look at them as prisoners, you look at them as human beings, as women.”
Knowing that most of these women will one day return to the outside world, Margaret says, “The dogs allow me to bring some change to their lives,” to help them on their journey.