Sister Pauline Quinn asked me if I had ever been here before. It was obvious that I had never been to a prison because I was impatiently waiting for the gate in front of me to open while the second gate just past it was still closing.
She told me the gates never opened at the same time.
Another well-known rule is that you can’t have your cell phone. I had to run out to my car and return back through those glacial-speed double-gates. I was there to see the nun, who so clearly saw my naivety, speak about a new program at Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McLoud, Okla.
Sister Pauline is the originator of the inmate-dog training program, Prison Pet Partnership, upon which Lexington Correctional’s "Friends for Folks" program is based. Mabel Bassett is now the second correctional facility in Oklahoma to implement an inmate-dog training program under the moniker of Guardian Angel.
It was a large room, with white walls and floors and vending machines. It reminded my of my elementary school cafeteria, except all of the chairs faced a long table with podium in the middle.
Refreshments were out and people were mingling as Sister Pauline and her dog Pax walked around making sure to say hello to everyone. Pax was from a program in Florida and he never left Sister Pauline’s side.
Veterinarian Dr. John Otto, who produced the documentary "The Dogs of Lexington," about Lexington Correctional's dog training program, introduced me to some members of The Educational Employment Ministry, or TEEM, a nonprofit organization in Oklahoma City.
“The mission of our nonprofit is to, literally, break the cycles of incarceration and poverty through education and character development and work-readiness training,” said executive director and former Oklahoma Speaker of the House, Kris Steele.
He and his two employees said Oklahoma had the highest rate of female incarceration in the states, which was nearly twice the national average.
They said the dog-training program helps to change the attitudes of the prisoners, give them a work skill after incarceration and a chance to give back to the community.
Two students from OU’s Nonprofit Leadership Student Association were also at Mabel Bassett to see Sister speak. They worked to get the grant that brought Sister Pauline to Oklahoma.
Communications senior Jericha McGill and University College freshman Chay John had been with Sister Pauline since she landed in Oklahoma and had an entire week planned to spend with her before they screened “The Dogs of Lexington” at OU.
“In the five minutes I met her, when I went to go and pick her up, I was like, ‘You’re my new favorite person in the world,’” said McGill.
McGill and Chay spoke about different stories Sister Pauline told them during an informal dinner March 2, including her work to help African refugees in Italy and taking care of a Haitian boy for three months after he got severe burns during an earthquake.
Some of her past is mentioned in the movie “Within These Walls” which is based on her first program, but Sister Pauline included more detail in her speech.
She grew up in a dysfunctional family and ran away to avoid abuse, but was institutionalized where she described being tortured and dehumanized by authoritative adults, including getting raped by a police officer.
Eventually she ended up on the streets — so traumatized that she was unable to even speak.
Then she found Joni, the German shepherd that built her self-esteem and helped rescue her from her life on the streets.
The now 71-year-old nun had a sense of humor throughout her speech, making the reality of her recovery even more prominent.
After she spoke, the inmates introduced the first three dogs in the Mabel Bassett program. Dogs Lady, Coco and Hannah still have some training to do, but they all wagged their tails and were enthusiastic despite their abusive pasts.
“This program has made me feel human again,” said inmate and trainer April Wilkens as Hannah began to bark. Wilkens worked to quiet her only to have Hannah start giving her slobbery kisses.
New program facility plans were revealed, and although there isn’t a date set for completion, plans include a large star in the courtyard to represent hope.
I wanted to know how Sister Pauline made this connection that has been so internationally successful. I was hoping to hear about how her past contributed to wanting to help inmates or something about her own kind of imprisonment inspiring her to reach out to these women.
“[We're] the only people that would do it,” she answered simply.
The entire day she continued to surprise me, which was quite humbling, and Pax never left her side.