Finding purpose behind bars: Programs at Allen-Oakwood provide job skills, mentoring

LIMA — As employees and visitors leave the parking lot in front of Allen-Oakwood Correctional Institution in Lima, they pass a sign that reads:

“Thank you! Together we made a difference today!”

While this sign is undoubtedly meant for the corrections officers and staff at the facility, many of the men confined to the other side of the institution’s razor-wire fence are working to be able to say the same thing despite their incarceration. When it comes to public attention around the prison, much of it is centered around the escape of two inmates in 2023, but behind the locked gates and fences, some of those incarcerated want to make a more positive impact on the community.

Going to the dogs

Get buzzed into the two locked security doors in the main entry building, along with an additional locked gate near the administration building, and you will see multiple incarcerated residents behind yet another fence in the open courtyard. This one, however, surrounds the open-air exercise and training area for the rescue dogs who are being rehabilitated.

The Tender Loving Dog Care program pairs dogs with behavioral or other issues that are hindering them from being adopted with trained inmates who work one-on-one with them to help the dogs overcome those obstacles and eventually find a new, loving home. Currently, the facility takes in dogs from dog wardens in Allen, Hardin and Logan counties.

“I help train the guys and bring the guys in through the classes,” Derek Poindexter, 31, said. Poindexter has been incarcerated since 2016 after being convicted of four charges including rape and kidnapping. “I’ve been [working] to teach them a little bit more positive reinforcement to get the obedience in, and so through that, we’re helping the community get these dogs adopted.”

Participants in the program are in an ideal position because they are able to work with the dogs constantly, being able to devote the kind of time needed to get the dogs the help they need.

“We had four pit bull mixes from Hardin County, and these dogs were in bad shape,” Poindexter said. “They’re very skittish and they were pulling on the leash. We had one pulling on the leash so hard that his nose was bleeding. They found them on the street and they had probably been there most of their life. But through the training we do, we do positive reinforcement and we’ve been guiding them out of it so they’re socializing with other dogs and socializing with people.”

For Allen County Dog Warden Julie Shellhammer, this program has been a win-win, and she has been impressed with the level of work she has seen.

“Every time we’ve had a dog adopted since we’ve been there, they have done a full page or page-and-a-half bio on what the dog knows and what they’ve taught for commands,” she said. “It’s really helpful to the new owners. And you can see when you’re out there that they take pride in it. They teach the dogs tricks and do different things, and they can work on specific issues, and you see that they take great pride in that.”

Finding other ways to help

Archie Wilder, 50, has been incarcerated for aggravated murder and involuntary manslaughter since 2001, and his parole eligibility date is not for another 10 years. Since his sentence began, Wilder has focused his energy on being productive and helping others, he said, including working with the dog training program.

“Also, I do a lot of mentoring trying to help the younger population,” he said. “We’re the older population, and no matter how much time they’re doing, we’re trying to change their thinking and their behavior. I co-facilitate a program called Thinking For a Change. They sent me to London, Ohio to get trained to co-facilitate that. Also with the re-entry program, I help the guys on Chromebooks to help them do their re-entry stuff before they go home. I’m a tutor. I just like to help people.”

Those in the facility have access to multiple peer-support groups and programs. Scott Schoch, 42, incarcerated for the past 15 years for murder, is now a peer recovery support specialist at Allen-Oakwood, working with Gracie, a golden retriever therapy dog he has trained up from a puppy for the past three years.

“I use my shared lived experiences to help other guys overcome alcohol and addiction issues,” he said. “Gracie is pretty famous around here. She knows about 100 commands in two languages.”

John McDerment, 46, has spent his entire adult life in prison, having received a 25-year-to-life sentence in 1994 on charges ranging from murder and arson to burglary and assault. He has been at Allen-Oakwood for 24 years, one of 534 serving life sentences at the facility. Today, however, he is best recognized for the AOCI Red Cross hat he wears, serving as the chairman of the chapter for the past 15 years. He also works with the Ohio Penal Industries program, with Allen-Oakwood having a textile industry that provides prison garb, sheets and other materials to all the correctional institutions in the state. The program also helps provide job skills for participants for when they are released.

“We just started offering college classes,” he said. “We’ve partnered with [Dayton-based] Sinclair College. We’re doing customer service and transitional skills. We’re about to add two more classes, one of them in management. In trying to get a skill set, it’s important for the outside community to be a part of that.”

McDerment’s work with the Red Cross includes making sleeping bags and plastic ground mats for the homeless and veterans.

“People donate grocery bags to us for that,” he said.

The chapter is involved with numerous community service projects, including making Christmas stockings for Big Brothers Big Sisters, gifts included, and collecting pop can tabs to donate funds to Ronald McDonald house. The Red Cross chapter also makes quilted blankets for homeless shelters, and the group has also partnered with the Linus project, which involves making comfort blankets for abused and mistreated children.

“It’s something to give them a sense that everything’s going to be okay,” McDerment said.

Friends on the outside

Ric Smith serves as a liaison between the Allen-Oakwood Red Cross chapter and Red Cross chapters in northwest Ohio. His experience working with the incarcerated has been nothing but positive, he said.

“They’re excited about being able to share, to give back to the community, so they’re really happy to do it,” he said. “Purpose is very important to them [and knowing] that they’re not forgotten and that people do respect the things they do. A lot of people think they’re just throwaways, but they’re human beings. They’re God’s children, and to be able to contribute is important.”

The hope for those incarcerated is that those contributions can continue after their sentence, and one program is nearly set to begin at Allen-Oakwood that may help. Lima Pallet Company is working to set up a satellite manufacturing center inside the facility, giving participants the skills and experience that can lead to a job at the pallet manufacturer after they are released.

“This is a paid position,” Lima Pallet owner and president Tracie Sanchez said. “It’s the same rate they would get paid here. A portion of that goes to pay for the program, and some of it can be used to pay back any restitution. But they’re going to get paid on the inside.”

Sanchez also said that her company also helps to ensure that recently-released employees can obtain housing and food, and they also help them with developing budgets and managing money properly. Her company has long worked with released inmates to help give them a second chance.

“What I found is that they become the most loyal, hard workers because you did invest in them,” she said. “You did give them a second chance.”

For those still on the inside like Wilder, these programs, whether as a volunteer or working a trade, have helped to not just give the men something to do, but also to regain a sense of their humanity.

“I’ve been in those environments where people have no hope, and regardless of how much time I may have left, to know that I can have a purpose here [is important],” he said. “The way people view you matters. So when a person views you as a human being and says, ‘We want to give you the opportunity to do this,’ that makes you more motivated. Regardless of what is in front of me, I can still have a purpose in life. That’s not looking past the mistakes I’ve made and the choices I’ve made. But that doesn’t mean you have to have a life of hopelessness.”