Veterinarian John Otto did not want to go to prison. In 1996, he was too busy – starting a family, establishing his veterinary practice and volunteering at the Norman Animal Shelter – and had no desire to get involved in Friends for Folks, a dog training program held inside the correctional facility in Lexington, Oklahoma.
“My dad worked in law enforcement,” Otto says. “I was pretty prejudiced in my upbringing: There’s nothing good in prison.”
However, the program’s director, Dr. Grant Turnwald, was a friend and mentor. His invitations to join were incessant. Finally, after much contemplation and prayer, Otto agreed to only one visit.
“I remember walking through the prison and seeing darkness everywhere,” Otto says. “Then you go through these doors into the compound where this dog program is, and it was like walking from night into day. The change was so profound. The inmates were laughing. The dogs were barking. They were playing frisbee. When I saw the inmates’ eyes – and the animals’ eyes – how happy and joyful (they were), it was almost a magical effect. I would never have thought something of such greatness, such purity, would exist in a place that’s so dark.”
The first glimpse was enlightening, and the more Otto learned about Friends for Folks, the more enthralled he became.
“You take these broken animals, often abused, and you pair them with an inmate who has a very similar background,” he says. “The inmates get to pour their emotions into these animals that give them unconditional love. That opens them up to learn; they drop their walls, their inhibitions and their protections. Self-confidence improves for both the inmate and the animal, and they get better with time.”
On the ride home from Lexington, Turnwald announced he was taking a new job at Virginia Tech University in Blacksburg, Virginia. Friends for Folks needed new leadership, and he pegged Otto for the role. After careful consideration and more prayer, Otto said yes. He remains executive director today, 25 years after that first fateful visit.
“From my perspective, I don’t know how I could not be involved in such a special thing,” Otto says. “These inmates and dogs together create something so wonderful, and then that gift goes on to help others.”
The well-trained canines are also placed in homes of veterans, widows, autistic children and the elderly – people in need of companionship.
In addition to speaking engagements, Otto shares Friends for Folks’ stories through books and films. Otto collaborated on the documentary The Dogs of Lexington, which was nominated for an Emmy in 2014. The film’s success increased fundraising and allowed the program to expand to Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in 2015.
“The animal benefits, the offender benefits, and society benefits. I don’t know of any other program that is such a positive win-win-win situation,” he says.
Otto’s life was transformed after seeing Friends for Folks firsthand. Now, much like Turnwald did with him, he is constantly reaching out to pull others in. Turns out, there is good inside prison walls.