Inside Central Prison, Charles McDuffie lay recovering from surgery, a thick purple scar on his neck, when the steel doors slid open and a border collie named Buddy trotted into his cell wearing Christmas stockings on his ears.
McDuffie, who is 81 and serving time for drug trafficking, watched as the dog hopped into his wheelchair and surveyed the cinder-block walls, offering a paw.
“Looks like you got it made sitting there,” said the old inmate, patting his visitor. “I have a dog. He’s too old. He went blind since I’ve been in here.”
Before 10 a.m. Wednesday, this 10-year-old retired show dog with a displaced elbow would light up the cells of a dozen convicted felons in the prison hospital, one of whom reported suffering a cerebral hemorrhage and 17 strokes, another of whom is diabetic with a pair of amputated legs.
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Cancer and dementia hit just as hard behind bars, and a two-minute visit from a therapy dog can draw a smile from souls unlucky enough to spend Christmas contending with the double whammy of sickness and prison.
“We don’t get to talk to anyone,” said James Thomas Dalton, who is awaiting trial for attempted murder. “It’s even better than when a person visits. You can do all the talking.”
“I’d let him stay here with you,” joked J.R. Poe, Buddy’s handler. “But he snores. You wouldn’t get no sleep.”
A second visit
For more than 20 years, Poe has led dogs into hospitals, nursing homes and cancer centers around the state, but Wednesday marked only his second prison visit – both of them with Buddy. His first trip to Central Prison’s hospital, in June, went so well that he got invited back for a second. On the first trip, he and Buddy saw Dalton, the double amputee, twice.
Dressed in a bowler hat and a tie decorated with Dalmatian puppies, Poe handed out candy and stuffed animals to the prison staff. In a normal hospital, he might have a chair for Buddy to sit on. But in the prison cells, he often had his dog prop both front paws on the inmates’ beds. In Dalton’s room, the diabetic prisoner hoisted himself into his wheelchair for a chance to get close.
“Hey, Buddy,” he said. “I think about you a lot. I think about my dogs at home. I’ve got two left. They’re both hound dogs. One is a Labrador retriever, but she’s a lot thinner. Her hair’s not as long, but she’s got tufts on the back of her legs. Just bushy. It reminds me of you.”
Standing in the door of the cell, Associate Warden Jimmy Atkins turned and whispered, “This is what it’s about, right here.”
‘Isn’t that good?’
Poe and Buddy spent an hour going from room to room, each door sliding open with a metallic clunk. As he made his rounds, his friend and helper Joe Wynns described the resume Poe was too humble to broadcast. A Vietnam veteran, he earned a Purple Heart, sometimes carrying the bullet pulled from his body on a necklace that reads, “I got a gift from Charlie.” When he entered Dalton’s room Wednesday, the inmate noticed, “You didn’t wear your uniform this time.”
Tearing up, Poe described the experience as a privilege, having been incarcerated himself but spending the last 23 years sober. At home in Sanford, Poe is trusted enough to take inmates both to church and to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
“I tell them you’ve got to change your playmates and your playground,” said Poe, 66. “I feel like God’s given me a second life. The rewards are tonight. When I lay down tonight, what have I done to touch somebody’s life? I’ve touched a lot of people today – a lot of lives. I wish I could wear a Santa suit.”
Inside many of the cells, Poe offered his furry companion to men too sick to greet him, and to inmates serving sentences longer than the human lifespan. As they parted, he offered each of them the same words:
“Take the word dog and spell it backward,” Poe said. “Isn’t that good? Isn’t that good?”