Larry is wearing his prison browns. He’s sitting slouched on a hard chair inside this hard place. He’s talking softly to me, but his eyes keep drifting to something else, something that has improved the lives of guards at the Omaha Correctional Center, and the lives of prisoners like Larry, too.
It’s a dog, a newly arrived one named Azule, a boxer-and-bulldog mix who this afternoon is filled with sloppy, nervous canine energy. Azule prowls this meeting room inside Omaha’s medium-to-minimum-security prison. Azule jumps into the arms of other prisoners. Azule bounds and trots and whines and barks and licks. The whole time, Larry’s eyes rarely leave the new dog, the dog that he and other prisoners will soon foster and ready for adoption outside these walls.
“He’s gonna need some work, boy,” Larry says, smiling. “He’s a strong one. Gonna need work.”
Larry Schneckloth is 62 years old. He has been in prison for 36 years, since he was convicted of kidnapping and rape. He will most likely be here until the day he dies.
He has three reasons to get up in the morning and to spend his days steering clear of any trouble inside this prison.
1. The belief that he has changed as a person.
2. The outside chance of a commutation that would reduce his life sentence.
3. The dogs.
Larry gets up in the morning for all three reasons, but especially for the dogs. He has personally fostered nearly 80 dogs for the Nebraska Humane Society since joining the Canine Compassion Program in 2008.
He has quite possibly fostered more dogs than any other single person in Omaha.
“I grew up with dogs. I always had ’em,” he says in a soft voice. “Then all of a sudden, one day, we could have a dog in here. You are trusted with it. It becomes one thing that is normal for you. Something that you know, from before.”
Enter into the prison on the east edge of the city limits, pass through the metal detectors, and you will find the Canine Compassion Program — something that seemingly helps every human and every beast that it touches.
It is good for the dogs: Nearly 500 canines taken in by the Nebraska Humane Society in Omaha have been fostered by OCC prisoners in the past nine years. These dogs are often quickly socialized, sometimes nursed back to health and then adopted by Omahans who live outside the prison’s walls.
“If it wasn’t for OCC, a lot of these animals wouldn’t get a second chance,” says Kara Young, the Humane Society’s foster care coordinator. “They really are saving these dogs’ lives.”
It is good for the guards: They say the prison is a calmer place, and their days are therefore a little better, because of the dogs’ presence. The dogs bring brief moments of joy to what can be often joyless jobs.
“Having a dog in the unit breaks up the monotony, for us as well as the inmates,” says Lynn Pozehl, the OCC administrator who runs the dog program inside the prison walls. “And I can’t even count how many staff members have adopted dogs from here.”
And it is good for the prisoners who sign up to foster dogs — prisoners like Larry. They have to qualify for the program, pass an interview and stay out of trouble. If they do, on several occasions a year, a dog is delivered to the prison. It is their dog, until it isn’t.
“My first dog was a little rat terrier,” Larry says. “I named her Zoomy. Because when I had her, she was always on the go.”
Once Larry started fostering dogs, he got used to a routine for him and man’s best friend. He walks into the yard at 6:30 a.m., the minute his cell door is opened, so the dog can do its business. He hands off his dog to another prisoner (an alternate in the program) after breakfast, so he can go to his job as a supervisor in the prison’s wood shop. He checks in on the dog quick after lunch. And then after he finishes work at 3:15 p.m., he and the dog are together for the rest of the afternoon and evening. At night, in his cell, Larry potty trains the dogs, or teaches them how to lay down and shake and roll over, or gives them a medicated bath if it’s been prescribed.
He has fostered a dog for as short as one day and for as long as six months. He has fostered a 130-pound yellow Lab and a tiny miniature Chihuahua. He has fostered dogs who have been abused and neglected, helped to nurse them back to health. He’s been sad nearly every time the dog leaves.
“You don’t want to admit it, but it brings tears to your eyes when they leave,” he says. “They are going out and getting adopted, and that does make it easier, but sometimes, you would like to keep them forever.”
Pozehl says many of the best dog handlers in the program are men serving life sentences. They are often older, and like Larry have been moved to this prison from a maximum-security penitentiary because of good behavior.
Here, everyone calls Larry by a nickname: Grandpa. Here, when you sit with Larry, it’s easy to forget that he was once convicted of a heinous crime, because the 62-year-old sitting before you doesn’t seem capable of harming a human, a dog or a fly.
“Some of them, by the time they get here, they have already changed quite a bit,” Pozehl says. “They have realized that’s not the person they want to be anymore. And they also realize: ‘This is it, for the rest of my life.’
“And then they help care for these dogs, and it helps them along as they continue to change. It helps them to care for a thing other than themselves.”
Larry says he will keep living what he considers to be as good a life as he can lead in prison. He will keep hoping that his case again will be reviewed, the Parole Board convinced, his freedom granted. But absent that, he will keep taking care of any and all dogs that the Nebraska Humane Society brings to him.
When his dog leaves, he will get someone to take a photo. And then he will put that photo next to the nearly 80 other photos he has in his cell.
“I know they are in good homes outside, and that helps,” he says. “I know they are free.”