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Presbyterian congregation joins with its neighbor, a prison, to live out its Matthew 25 calling

Incarcerated individuals can make dogs more adoptable by training them

by Mike Ferguson | Presbyterian News Service

Once its All God’s Creatures animal shelter is opened, First Presbyterian Church plans to deepen its partnership with the Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility. (Photos by Rich Copley/Presbyterian Mission Agency)

MT. PLEASANT, Iowa — Marcy Stroud, the warden at the minimum-security Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility, remembers very well the day she received a cold call from the Rev. Trey Hegar, pastor of First Presbyterian Church.

“We as a church are trying to find ways to help our community and love our neighbors,” she heard from Hegar. “You are literally our neighbor. Here are some ideas we have,” including establishing All God’s Creatures, which when it opens will be Henry County’s only animal shelter.

Marcy Stroud

“I thought that was the neatest thing, looking at who surrounds us and how we can help the community,” said Stroud, whose mother was the warden’s secretary and therefore grew up on the grounds of the prison, which emphasizes reentry for its incarcerated individuals. Before the pandemic, the prison had teamed with an organization in nearby Ft. Madison to socialize dogs and make them more adoptable. “We knew All God’s Creatures was waiting in the wings,” Stroud said, and the partnership has become stronger even before the shelter has actually opened.

“Incarcerated individuals are really no different than you or I,” said David Smith, the prison’s deputy warden. “There’s a lot of benefit to having the companionship of a pet,” including a lowered stress level. Smith’s words later rang true during a prison site visit when several men paused their workouts when Hegar’s small dog made an appearance.

The work as handlers can also help the men find work upon their release. “If I can show they have dedicated a lot of hours, that definitely makes them more employable,” Smith said. “They can prove to someone they have done the work.”

“It shows a renewed sense of responsibility,” Stroud said. “I believe that can transcend the incarceration.”

“The community doesn’t necessarily know about this yet,” said Kate Ridinger, a board member of All God’s Creatures, a commission of First Presbyterian Church. “We have let people know there are people we really want to connect with, and the prison was one of those populations.”

Kate Ridinger (contributed photo)

“We want to make sure it’s going to work, and that the community will rally behind it,” Ridinger said. “People who live here really deserve that connection. They live and work here, and yet people drive right past the [prison] building and think, cool building!”

Smith said a “large number” of dogs trained by incarcerated individuals get adopted by the members of the prison’s 240 staff. “I think the benefit for staff is seeing people be successful,” Smith said.

“Our incarcerated individuals and staff have a commonality,” Stroud said. “We have staff bring their adopted dogs back so the handlers can see them again.” Stroud recalled the story of Martha, a dog with a weight problem who came to the prison and slept many hours each day on a baby mattress. “She got trimmed up and she was healthy and spunky,” Stroud said. “A handler adopted her after he got out of prison.”

Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility also partners with a group that trains dogs for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder. “It’s a project that’s taken seriously” within prison walls, Stroud said, “because of the people it helps.”

“You see incarcerated individuals and now they have a dog and there is a lot of pride, and there should be,” Smith said. “It’s a privilege,” and they’re willing to share what they learn with others, he said.

David Smith

“I can think of incidences where behavior greatly improved when they had an animal to care for,” Stroud said. Added Smith: “I am biased because I love animals. If you walk through an area with a dog, it just improves the place. People are happier.”

The correctional facility has begun participating in the Old Threshers Reunion, a popular event held in Mt. Pleasant each summer. “When we’re hiring, we want people to know we’re here. We are making a concerted effort to get out more,” Stroud said. “When the time is right, we will let more people know about our partnership [with All God’s Creatures].” With the help of labor from those incarcerated, “we want to be able to create items for the shelter, create items that can be auctioned off.”

Successful partnerships “show a softer side,” according to Ridinger. “People sometimes think partnering with a prison can be dangerous, but the success of this will show that stigma needs to go.” Ridinger toured the prison a few weeks ago. “It’s a minimum-security facility. The incarcerated individuals are walking around. Leaving there, I felt so much better. I could feel that ingrained notion slipping away. If I can change my mind, I hope I can spread that positivity toward other people. We can all come together around animals.”

Within its 1,200-capacity facility, Mt. Pleasant Correctional Facility has a 200-person “minimum liveout” building that includes the privilege of going out and working in the community.

“We really are the last stop” before freedom, Stroud said. A workforce counselor helps people look for a job and line up interviews. An Iowa Department of Transportation employee helps them get their license renewed or re-established. “These people are just one step shy of being your neighbor,” Stroud said. “We want to make sure we are doing everything we can to prepare them for that, and All God’s Creatures will be a milestone. Watching it develop from a committee to a working program and establishing the partnership with dogs — we will have a much greater presence when those things happen. It will make people more aware of the type of incarcerated individuals we have and our goals for them.”

One incarcerated individual, who was present in the yard when visitors were granted access to the prison, said he’d dealt with dogs before coming to prison.

‘Church can be anywhere in any form’  — All God’s Creatures Board Member Kate Ridinger


“There are guys waiting to be the next handler,” Smith said. “You can volunteer to wake up every two hours to bottle feed a kitten. Guys line up to do that.”

Even though Ridinger labels herself as unchurched, “I have never had pressure to have to go to church here to participate. This is teaching folks to do the right thing. Church can be anywhere in any form.”

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