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Pitbull attack puts bite on Maryland prison pet program

HAGERSTOWN — The state prison agency says it’s no longer allowing inmates to raise rescued pets for adoption at a medium-security prison in western Maryland after a pit bull bit two inmates and a correctional officer.

The curtailment of the program at the Maryland Correctional Training Center does not affect other animal-centered programs within the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, including those in which inmates train service dogs for disabled veterans, the agency said in a statement Wednesday.

Agency spokesman Robert Thomas told The Herald-Mail on Tuesday that the prison pet program at the 180-bed institution near Hagerstown has been discontinued until further notice.

The program allowed inmates to care for cats and dogs from area animal shelters. Proponents say it saved scores of animals from euthanasia since it began in July 2014.

But Thomas said the program was growing without guidelines, raising issues exemplified by the recent dog attack.

“We cannot just continue to take in dogs and cats. That’s not the business of a correctional institution. There are significant limitations. I think somewhere along the line, that part has been overlooked. This is a correctional facility,” Thomas told The Herald-Mail.

Warden Phil Morgan told The Herald-Mail in July that the program had had “a total calming effect” on the prison’s inmate population.

The program saved 43 dogs and 16 cats from euthanasia in its first year, the newspaper reported. Jessica Stevenson, who helped manage the program, said the prison was housing 14 full-grown dogs and six puppies when a reporter visited in July.

She said the pets sometimes received obedience training but others just needed attention.

Thomas said many people have questioned the decision to end the program. But he said it couldn’t continue without a clearer structure.

“The program seems to have morphed into a growing operation up there without the necessary guidelines and requirements,” he told The Herald-Mail.