Redemption in Shawshank
If Instagram had been around during Biblical times, the parable of The Good Samaritan would have no doubt had its own hashtag.
In that story a Samaritan stops to help a wounded and vulnerable traveler while others pass by—an example of helping someone based solely on shared humanity. The Samaritan even checks the wounded man into an inn and pays his expenses until he is recovered.
Today, random acts of kindness have never been more popular, but they also haven’t been so “random” either. There are dedicated campaigns all over social media, even entire viral channels devoted to sharing kind and selfless acts. In true human fashion we have watered down a noble concept for the sake of marketing campaigns and self-serving imagery.
It’s difficult to be too upset about it, because ultimately, we should strive to out-do one another in the kindness category. And I personally have benefited greatly from the attention I gained for rescuing a stray dog while on deployment in Afghanistan in 2010.
But still, every so often, it is important to reflect on our motivations and seek out an example of a truly kind act – one that is carried out by somebody without a selfie stick or a social media following or, in my case, a book to sell. An act done with regard only for the recipient—not ego or virtue.
I found one such example in perhaps the only place where influencers and viral accolades literally don’t exist: Maine State Prison, the very one that inspired Stephen King’s famous novella, “Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption,” that was adapted into the iconic 1994 film.
In the spring of 2019, I received an invite to Maine State Prison from then-warden Randy Liberty. He’d informed me that a group of military veterans serving time in his prison had read my first book, Craig and Fred, and they wouldn’t stop hounding him to have me visit.
I happily accepted the invitation but began to prepare for what I assumed would be a depressing trip. I would be the one spreading positivity and joy into an otherwise dark and pitiful place, I thought. I brought along Fred, the stray I’d rescued from an embattled Afghan village, having learned that showing up to any book-related event without Fred greatly reduced the enthusiasm of participants.
My expectations were shattered instantly. Liberty and his entourage of staff met me in the lobby and escorted me into the maximum-security prison as if they were taking me on a brewery tour. As we walked “the mile”—a long strip of concrete that serves as the prison’s main thoroughfare for foot traffic—Liberty greeted his inmates and staff with the same authentic and engaging energy. Liberty is a former Sergeant Major in the Maine National Guard and an Iraq War veteran, so his sincerity hadn’t shocked me.
What did surprise me was when what he said just before we entered the housing unit known as, The Veterans Pod: “Okay, let’s go in and meet the men.” There was no cautionary statement or reminder that I was about to be near convicted criminals, many of them with violent histories. There was no “keep your hands in the side the vehicle at all times” speech. It was clear that Liberty didn’t see them that way—and he didn’t want me to, either.
I spent the next several hours chatting with the men of the Veterans’ Pod. I quickly realized that I had more questions for them than they did for me—especially after meeting a few of them who were participating in a unique dog training program for America’s VetDogs.
After I finished chatting with a large group of the men, we were approached by an inmate with a young black lab at his heel. I would learn later that the dog’s name was Chess. I watched the lab move in step with the man, seemingly attached to him by an invisible leash. With the wave of his hand and a slight nod he absolved Chess of his duties, releasing him to engage with my much less disciplined dog Fred, who howled and pulled on his leash.
“So you get to have dogs in here? That’s pretty awesome,” I said to the inmate, a young man who once served in the Army.
“Yeah, it’s a privilege for sure,” he said, watching Chess with a faint smile.
I spent the rest of my time in the Veterans’ Pod asking questions and getting to know the men who signed up for the privilege of training a dog—and came to realize that their training efforts are both fulfilling and bittersweet.
At Maine State, the men in this program are issued these little balls of fur with tangerine-paws and an innocence that melts the hardest of hearts. The dogs arrive at the prison when they are just a few months old and the training begins right away. The men have a little more than a year to turn them into indispensable assets for veterans suffering from physical and mental challenges. They train them in everything from basic sit and stay commands, to more complicated tasks like opening doors, turning on lights, and fetching medication during an emergency. It requires total dedication from their trainers. But that dedication comes at a cost. The hard work and diligence of the men throughout the training process engrains the dog into their daily routine and indeed into their hearts. The bond between them grows stronger with each week until inevitably, their time together comes to an end. Once the dog has reached a certain level of proficiency, typically after about fifteen months, the inmate’s job is done. The dogs move on for their final training phase at America’s VetDogs HQ on Long Island before being paired with a veteran. Once the dogs graduate the trainers must relearn how to navigate the prison environment without their companions. That is until the next batch of puppies arrives, and they start again.
The men are left only with memories and the knowledge that they have done something profoundly kind and selfless for someone they will never meet. The pain that comes with saying goodbye is something that they prepare for, and in some ways it’s a loss they’ve grown used to in solidarity.
What many of them might not immediately realize, however, is how the companionship helps relieve them from the hyper-masculine environment of a maximum-security prison.
Chess’s trainer said it best as he watched Fred attempt to hump the highly trained and much taller black Labrador.
“Most of our interactions in here are only skin deep. Someone is always looking for a vulnerability or something they can exploit. But with these dogs, we’re free.”
During their time together, the men are training, but—as dogs tend to do—the dogs are impacting the men by just being dogs. The responsibility of caring for and training the Labradors connects the men to a side of themselves that they’ve had to lock up while they’re locked up. Because their training is dependent on the bond between human and dog, the walls within the men are broken down and they are reconnected with compassion and patience.
For men who are serving lengthy sentences, some for violent crimes, it is their way of proving to themselves that they can have a positive impact on the world. Each dog that graduates from program at Maine State Prison goes on to change the lives of a veteran and a family, many of whom have suicidal tendencies. It is a way for the men to transcend the walls of their literal prison and grant freedom to someone living inside a figurative one.
On my walk out of the prison with Randy I tried to make sense of why these men would sign up for such a rollercoaster of responsibility and emotion.
“How much does this work impact their parole, or potential for early release?” I asked as we passed through a massive metal slider door.
With a smile that said he was expecting my question, Randy responded, “Maine doesn’t have parole. These men will serve every day of their sentences, regardless of how many dogs they train.”
This is what makes these men’s’ deeds truly selfless, an example to all of us would-be do-gooders. It’s kindness at a level that makes the Samaritan’s actions appear superficial by comparison. Over the course of two years, I began spending more and more time with the men and dogs of Maine State Prison, and I learned that true kindness in its purest form comes from an ability to love without fear and without anticipation of reward – a lesson I did not expect to learn from our nation’s incarcerated men. But I’m forever grateful that I did.