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San Quentin inmates send off puppies they raised to become service dogs alongside crowd

Ceremony held for San Quentin inmates who raised puppies to become service dogs
Ceremony held for San Quentin inmates who raised puppies to become service dogs 04:55

Day-to-day life for the residents of San Quentin Rehabilitation Center can be fairly simple, but one program is impacting those inside and outside in a big way.

"So, this is my cell," said Chase Benoit, an inmate at San Quentin. "It's 4'4" by 10'1. This right here is my bedroom, my bathroom, my kitchen, my living room – all in that small space."

It's where he makes his life, for now at least, because nearly 10 years ago, he took a life.

"I committed a murder. That's why I'm in prison," he said.

But rather than letting life pass him by, he spent the last year helping bring new life to strangers outside the prison walls.

CBS News Bay Area met Benoit a year ago, when he became one of the first participants in San Quentin's puppy raising program. Select-incarcerated individuals who've demonstrated a track record of good behavior and have passed a rigorous selection and vetting process, raise and train puppies to become service animals that nonprofit group Canine Companions will pair with people with disabilities for free.

Paige Mazzoni, the CEO of Canine Companions, said they have similar programs with prisons across the country. They've found that the dogs raised in prison settings often have higher success rates in getting all the way to becoming accredited service dogs.

"More of them that come out of your hands do succeed as service dogs than those from our normal population of puppy-raisers. You are 10% more successful," she said.

San Quentin officials see this is a valuable rehabilitation tool for some inmates that also benefits the community. Benoit sees it as a way to give back to a community he took from.

"There's no good that I can do that will make up for the harm that I've done," he said. "I might not be able to take it back, but I can dedicate my life to continuously changing and trying to be a better person."

On a spring afternoon at San Quentin, Benoit and several other inmates stood before a crowd to be recognized for the good they've done over the last year as puppy raisers and to see their puppies off.

The men comprised the first of what will be many graduating classes of San Quentin's puppy raising program.

"Our mission is to change lives through the power of the human-canine bond," Mazzoni said. "We are very much looking at expanding this program not only here, but throughout the state and, quite frankly, throughout the nation."

On stage before the crowd, Benoit demonstrated some of the commands and skills he and his peers taught his puppy, Wendell, over the last year.

In the crowd, watching intently, was Marv Tuttle. He is a Vietnam veteran who knows how a service animal can change a life, whose first service dog was prison raised, and who happens to be Benoit's grandfather.

"This is a difference in someone's life that you can make," he said. "I promise you that out in the field, as handlers, that we will respect forevermore what it is that you have done for us."

On stage alongside his grandson, Tuttle said his service dog helps with day-to-day tasks. But most importantly, his dog helps him feel a connection with other people.

"The prison program brings a lot to the table, not just in what it does for the inmates, but what it does for us as recipients of these service dogs," he said. "Just because they're inmates in a prison, and maybe they've done something horribly wrong in their lives, that's not going to rub off on these dogs. It's actually quite the opposite."

From what he has noticed over the course of the last year, the program is helping his grandson grow.

"It definitely has made a big difference for him. He sees what he is capable of doing," Tuttle said. "Being a part of this world means that we are all in this together, and you can't be so hung up on me, me, me. He has discovered, 'I made a mistake; here's a perfect opportunity to pay back and pay forward.'"

Another program participant, Aaron Ramzy, said the ability to experience joy has inspired him to want to do more good.

"It's taught me a lot of compassion, a lot of awareness," he said. "This program has given me a lot of responsibility. It has taught me a lot about accountability and working with others."

He feels fortunate to have had the privilege to participate in a program like this while incarcerated.

"We're really breaking ground here at San Quentin Rehabilitation Center, and I'm just really glad to be a part of the change," he said "I want to do more. We'll see what the future holds."

Tuttle is grateful for the program's existence — for the sake of people in the community who will benefit from it and for the sake of the inmates who will benefit from it.

"San Quentin used to be called the death house," he said. "It just gives you some insight into what can happen if enough people put their heads together to try and do something for the better."

After handshakes and a moment of gratitude, the unusual but powerful day at San Quentin came to a close. But a new chapter is beginning for Benoit. He is starting from scratch again, with a new puppy named Margaret.

"It's a great responsibility to know that what I teach her now she's going to hold for the rest of her life," he said.

Benoit knows that this opportunity is a privilege. He can't change the past, but by doing this, he can make the future better for others, for people like his grandfather.

"There are so many people out in the community where if you heard my name Chase, they'd have nothing but bad things to say," he said. "But now, I know at least one person, the person who will receive Wendell, when they hear the name Chase, there is going to be good coming out of that."

He hopes more people outside the prison walls can see and appreciate the fact that there is good that can come from the people inside.

"We're not getting any time off. We're not getting any money for it. We're doing this because we want to make amends," Benoit said. "Use us. Like, we literally don't want anything in return but to just have the joy of this dog. In return, we'll give you so much more. We'll give it our heart. We're going to try and change as many lives as possible."

Once they're service animals, Canine Companions places the dogs with people in need free of charge and will follow up for life.

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