A new program at Sierra Conservation Center in Jamestown is giving prisoners like convicted murderer Gabriel John Pippin an opportunity to improve a rescue dog’s chances for adoption.

Pippin, 42, is one of 14 inmates at SCC who were carefully selected to participate in a new program called Prisoners Uniting People and Puppies, or PUPP for short, a partnership between the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation and Friends of the Animal Community in Sonora.

“I divided a whole town, destroyed lives and destroyed families,” said Pippin, who is serving a sentence of life without parole. “This has given me a chance to give back.”

Seven dogs rescued from local animal shelters will be cared for and trained by the inmates in the program over the next 12 weeks.

The goal is for the dogs to become certified as “Canine Good Citizens” through the American Kennel Club.

There are seven primary handlers selected, as well as seven secondary handlers.

Each dog sleeps in kennels in their primary handler’s cell at night. The secondary handlers care for the dog when the primary handler is doing something where he can’t bring the dog.

A volunteer dog trainer comes to the prison every Thursday for obedience classes.

Inmates with a history of violence toward animals or sex offenses involving animals are not allowed to participate. Those in close custody, meaning they require direct armed supervision, are also not eligible.

Other requirements include being free of any disciplinary actions for at least 12 months, having a minimum of 12 months left on their sentence at SCC, no pending transfer to another prison, and no frequent court appearances or hospital visits.

Prisoners like Pippin are housed in SCC’s yard for level three offenders, who are generally serving longer sentences or convicted of more serious offenses than level one or two.

Pippin said he’s already noticed a change in even the most hardened inmates in his yard since the dogs arrived on March 1.

“We’re able to open a conversation with guys we normally never would,” Pippin said. “There are guys in here who haven’t pet a dog in 20, 30, and 40 years who are coming up and asking what they need to do to get in the program.”

Geoff Paul Newman, 50, is the secondary handler for Tyson, the dog Pippin is training.

Newman’s shaved head is covered in tattoos and he has one that surrounds his left eye socket. He has served 23 years for murder and becomes eligible for parole on May 1.

“For me, it’s been a way to give back and do something for my victim,” Newman said. “For 23 years, his family has been without him. This is a way for me to do something positive in his name.”

Jeffrey Stephen Percell, 60, is the primary handler of a dog named Baron.

Percell is also serving a life sentence without parole for murder. He was convicted in 1988 and also sees the program as an opportunity at a sort of personal redemption.

“I am guilty,” Percell said. “I can’t change anything I did in the past, but I can participate in programs like this to help CDC and shelter dogs.”

Patrick Sean “Mick” Moffett, 57, is a prisoner in the same yard who’s training a pit bull-boxer mix named Timmy.

Moffett is serving a life sentence for a murder he committed in 1977, when he was 16 years old and tried as an adult. He hasn’t pet a dog in the 41 years he’s been behind bars.

“It’s given me something to care about and something to love,” Moffett said. “I want the best for him (Timmy), and it’s taught me responsibility.”

In a different yard, there was another obedience class held on Thursday for dogs being trained by level-two prisoners.

The prisoners were all wearing their SCC-issued blue denim clothing, in addition to neon vests with “PUPP Program” emblazoned on the back. An inmate who wasn’t in the program patted one of the dogs on the head as he was walking by and smiled.

Most of the dogs in the program are 1 to 2 and appear to be fully grown, which volunteer trainer Monica Gilliland says can make them harder to adopt.

“We’re using positive reinforcement to teach these dogs proper manners,” said Gilliland. “If we can teach them good, solid manners, it can make it easier (to get them adopted).”

Dwight Stanley Owens, 29, is the primary handler for a dog named Ziggy. He said he’s serving nine years for attempted murder.

Owens has two more years on his sentence and hopes the program could help him get a job as a dog trainer or groomer when he gets released.

“I figured it was a good opportunity to give back to the community and help me in my rehabilitation for when I get out,” he said. “And it’s new, you don’t see dogs in prison much.”

Michael Joseph Schneider, 55, has served nine years of a 28-year sentence for a financial crime. He’s training a pit bull-boxer mix named Poe.

Schneider called the program “an incredible privilege” and believes it’s helping more than just the men selected to be primary or secondary handlers.

“My dog just socializes with everyone,” he said. “It makes everyone talk about how they want a pet when they get out and makes them think about the future.”

Giving inmates something positive and constructive to do was one of the goals of both SCC staff and Friends of the Animal Community volunteers who collaborated on the program.

They worked for about two years to get it off the ground, which included visits to other prisons that have successfully run similar programs.

Mule Creek State Prison in Ione is one of the leaders in this specific type of program. Inmates there have trained 500 dogs over the years, according to SCC spokesman Lt. Robert Kelsey.

Kelsey was part of a team of six people from SCC and FOAC who interviewed more than 30 inmates for the first class at the Jamestown prison. Each inmate had to write an essay about why they should be selected.

Tammy Ekstrand is an office tech for the custody captain at SCC who is serving as the liaison between the prison and FOAC.

“It’s a program I truly believe in,” said Ekstrand. “It provides benefits for both the dogs and inmates.”

Darlene Mathews, president of FOAC in Sonora, and Maureen Miller, vice president, said the nonprofit organization paid for all of the supplies needed to get the program started, including dog food, toys, leashes, and kennels.

Kelsey said there are grants the prison can chase to keep the program going, but they are only awarded for programs that are already established. They hope to increase the number of dogs being trained at one time to 16, or eight on each yard.

For more information about the program, contact Mathews at darlene4paws@gmail.com or (209) 768-3630, or the FOAC center at (209) 533-3622.

Contact Alex MacLean at amaclean@uniondemocrat.com or (209) 588-4530.