Sorrell Blomley isn't allowed much in her 9-by-12-foot cell at Dwight Correctional Center. A bed, a toilet and some photographs kept neatly in an album.
But for the past four years, Blomley also has shared the cramped space with a succession of fluffy golden retrievers as she serves a 10-year sentence at the women's prison. And that, she says, has made her a different person.
"Before, I was very shy. I was afraid to step out of my shell and didn't have any people skills," said Blomley, 26, whose dog Phoebe is the most recent. "Now I feel like I can work with people."
Since 2001, inmates at Dwight Correctional Center have clamored for the chance to be round-the-clock dog trainers while serving their time behind bars. The prison's highly praised Dog Apprentice Program — the only one of its kind in the state — was designed to help these women develop interpersonal and career skills while preparing dogs for charity work.
But as plans proceed to close Dwight amid the state's budget crisis and move 1,100 inmates to a facility in Lincoln, officials say they must discontinue the apprenticeship program. While the loss of an effective rehabilitation opportunity is lamented, a charity that has dispatched inmate-trained dogs to churches, retirement homes and even to help victims of Hurricane Sandy also is feeling the pain.
"It will be a loss to us, definitely," said Tim Hetzner, president of Addison-based Lutheran Church Charities, which administers the K-9 Comfort Dog Program. "We'll be very sad from it, and we're still praying it doesn't happen."
Without Dwight's program, he said, the organization expects to see its pool of comfort dogs reduced by as much as half.
Administrators at Lake Land College based in Mattoon, which has inmate education programs across the state, worked with the Illinois Department of Corrections to introduce dog training programs at Dwight after seeing similar programs succeed at women's prisons across the U.S.
The community college offers other training opportunities to inmates — cooking, career technology, GED completion — but prison and school officials saw dog training programs as a way to reach inmates in a different and more personal way.
"The dogs show unconditional love, and many women have never experienced that," said Jeanne Moore, vocational dog trainer and instructor for Lake Land College. "Ladies will get bad news from home, and just feeling those warm fuzzy bodies …. It is a privilege."
In the early days, Lake Land College officials used money from their own pockets to pay for the veterinarian bills and dog food so the program could keep going. But when Lutheran Church Charities announced plans to start training comfort dogs for use by nonprofits, a new partnership was formed.
For the past two years, the charity has turned over as many as four puppies at a time to be trained at Dwight.
Inmates accepted into the apprenticeship program must not be serving time for violent crimes, have a high school diploma and have completed a basic dog training program offered at the prison, said Alan Mortensen, associate dean of Lake Land College.
The program is so popular that some inmates wait two to three years to participate, he added.
Apprentices teach the dogs to sit, stay, keep quiet and refuse food in social settings. They help the dogs master comforting skills such as "visit," when the dog rests its chin on a knee, or "lap," when the dog sprawls out to offer a canine hug.
The dogs get some early training by visiting mental health units at the prison to cheer occupants.
The animals relieve themselves outdoors according to the inmates' strict schedules and sleep in small kennels allowed near inmates' beds.
"It's definitely a place that's prone to negativity, a lot of people not thinking of bettering themselves," Blomley said of the prison. "With the dog, it just takes people away from here. … It definitely keeps me away from any trouble I'd be around."
Sheryl Thompson, Dwight's warden, said she and other prison officials have high hopes for women who complete the program.
"So many of our ladies have lived just for themselves and lived from high to high," Thompson said. "So they come here, and for the first time they're clean and thinking, 'What am I going to do?'"
The dogs who complete training at Dwight move on to big expectations, as well.
To date, Lutheran Church Charities has placed comfort dogs at 52 parishes, schools, retirement homes and other nonprofits in six states. Fifteen of those dogs were trained by inmates at Dwight, Hetzner said.
Chloe was adopted by Lord of Life Lutheran Church in Elburn, Ill., last summer after growing up at Dwight. The dog routinely visits patients with Alzheimer's disease, children with disabilities and children at school.
"I've never had a dog this well-behaved," the Rev. Phil Ressler said. "When I have the dog, I don't need to go to people. People just come to me, and they start sharing."
Dwight officials are still waiting for official word on when the prison's doors will close. With no community colleges in the Lincoln area offering dog training courses — much less to prisoners — the apprenticeship program will have to end, Thompson said.
Meanwhile, Hetzner said, the Chicago-area charity will need to find new people to make up for the training lost when Dwight shuts down. Lutheran Church Services has kept in touch with several former inmates who have gone on to become dog trainers. Other former inmates have kept in touch with dogs trained at Dwight through each comfort dog's Facebook page.
Hopeful, he's still not sure the charity will be able to replicate the unique partnership.
"People appreciate that we're working with prisoners in developing a skill so that when they get out ... they're not going to prison," Hetzner said. "It was a win-win."