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PHOENIX (Reuters) - Kristina Hazelett had cats, birds and hamsters growing up, but she never knew much about dogs until she started serving a several-month jail sentence for drug possession.
The 35-year-old inmate is part of a small team of women prisoners in Phoenix, Arizona who work with the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office Animal Safety Unit (MASH). The program is designed to help comfort and train mistreated and neglected animals rescued from deplorable conditions.
But the rehabilitation goes much further than helping the abused animals.
"Along the way, we provide the rehabilitation for not just the animals but for the inmates as well," William Sibole, a detention officer with the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, told Reuters.
Six days a week the women in the program are transported to the animal shelter in a former men's jail where rows of cells, some adorned with dog portraits and animal murals, have been renamed Bow Wow Way, Purr Lane, 2nd Chance and Ruff Road.
Since the former men's jail was converted into a holding center to provide a safe haven for the animals in 2000, thousands of mainly dogs, cats and horses have been cared for and adopted.
Tiger, a pit bull terrier rescued from a dog fighting ring, became the beloved mascot for MASH during his nearly nine-year stay, before leaving to live with a family.
Once the animals are healthy and social some of them may be taken by detention officers to another program at the Maricopa County jail facilities to interact with other prisoners.
MASH said it is the only agency in the United States that investigates animal cruelty complaints, rescues the animals, houses and cares for them and arranges adoptions.
Hazelett and the other women in the female-only program that lasts at least 30 days are interviewed and rigorously screened before they are accepted. They work with detention officers and animal care technicians to acquire the training skills necessary to get the dogs ready for adoption. Some of the hundreds of graduates have gone on to jobs in the pet industry. Two are studying to become veterinarian technicians.
"I get so much out of it, probably more than the dogs do," Hazelett said in an interview. "It's very therapeutic for me as well, not just them, which was an unexpected, pleasant surprise."
For Aubrey Herrera, a 31-year-old woman serving time for a probation violation for theft and drug charges, caring for the dogs is the highlight of each day.
Patience is what she said the program has taught her.
"These dogs are locked up just like we are and they need love just like we do," she explained. "It's not about us when we come here. It's about the dogs and making sure they're taken care of and loved and bathed - that they know what it's like to feel loved."
Writing by Patricia Reaney; editing by Diane Craft