Grant County Jail believes therapy dog program is leading to fewer inmate fights & incidents

GRANT COUNTY, Ind. – Nationwide and back here at home in Indiana, county-funded jails are struggling with budget cuts.

Less money is leading to staff shortages, fewer beds and fewer inmate programs like educational resources, outreach and job connections.

That is the case as well in Grant County, where Sheriff Reggie Nevels admits, it’s been a challenge.

“We are facing financial issues just like everybody else,” he said.

That’s why about a year ago, when funeral home director and dog handler Mark Storey presented his unique idea to the sheriff, the jail staff was willing to consider anything. Storey had just gotten a therapy dog for people who were grieving. He thought the gift was too good not to share. He offered to bring Nero to the jail once a week every week so that the inmates could spend some time with the dog.

“And believe it, it is working,” the sheriff laughed. “It’s amazing. It’s like a blessing.”

Nevels said since Nero has started visiting the female inmate population, the jail staff has seen fewer fights and incidents between them.

“It has taken a lot of tension off our staff,” he added.

CBS4 tagged along to see how the program works. While we couldn’t record inside the jail for safety reasons, reporter Angela Brauer said she noticed right away the difference Nero made inside the jail cells.

“The dog would walk in and everyone’s mood changed. Jail is dreary. It’s sad, dark and cold just like you would expect. As soon as Nero walked in, though, everyone faces lit up with a smile. The women were throwing the ball for Nero and giving the dog treats,” Brauer reported.

“It’s something to look forward to every Wednesday,” inmate Melinda Doyle said. “A bit of normalcy and just to love on him.”

“It’s a big stress reliever,” inmate Tiffany Riddle added. “There is nothing nice about jail. You live with 15 other women. It’s hard to get along with people sometimes.”

Storey took Nero cell block to cell block – about three of them – and spent about 10 minutes with each. While he was there, Storey sat with the women and asked them about their cases, court hearings and family back home. The women seemed to enjoy talking to someone different about their lives and the challenges they were facing.

“It’s more than some of us can bear,” Doyle told CBS4. “It’s harder than you think.”

The women played with the dog and laughed. Some said Nero reminded them of their pets back home. Others said it made their lives feel normal again, even if just for a few minutes.

“One of the ladies said to me because you came, I can get through the day,” Storey said.

Nero is exhausted by the end of the day. Storey thinks that is because Nero absorbs the inmates’ stress and takes it home.

“This particular program we have with Mark is priceless,” the Sheriff said. “It doesn’t cost us a penny.”

The jail staff said the program has been so successful, they’re hoping to expand it into their male jail population soon. They’re wondering, though, if they would need to find an additional dog so that Nero isn’t overwhelmed.

While many state and some federal prisons offer similar programs, Grant County is believed to be only the second county-funded jail in the state to have a therapy dog.