Prison may seem like the worst possible place to train a dog, especially at a facility like the California State Prison in Los Angeles County, home to the kinds of criminals we often think of as society’s worst.
But last year, a select group of the prison’s inmates—many serving life sentences for heinous crimes of murder and kidnapping—helped give rescue dogs a second life by caring for them, training them, and after an intensive 12-week program, turning them over to an adoptive family. Over the summer, photographers Shaughn Crawford and John DuBois spent six days inside the prison, capturing these often surreal scenes of inmates and their dogs lounging in cells, playing in the prison yard, going through obedience training, and, ultimately, bonding.
“I was really blown away by how compassionate they were and how much these guys cared for these animals,” Crawford says. “Their passion and their love for these dogs was really heartwarming. A lot of times, they would start crying when they talked about it.”
California State Prison in LA County is a maximum-security, or Level 4, facility and the only one in the state where inmates serving lifetime sentences train dogs. The prison program, Paws for Life, was developed by LA non-profit Karma Rescue, and it gives the dogs an opportunity to become Canine Good Citizens, an American Kennel Club designation that makes it easier for them to get adopted.
But just getting within the prison’s walls proved difficult for both photographers, who had to navigate TSA-style pat-downs and security checkpoints while lugging multiple cameras and backpacks full of gear.
The prisoners were all Level 4 inmates—the highest possible security level—but thanks to good behavior, a select group had been downgraded to Level 3 and given the opportunity to participate in the program. Crawford and DuBois said they quickly felt comfortable around the inmates, at times even losing sight of the fact that they were working with hardened criminals. At one point, DuBois recalled, a guard yelled at him for walking down one of the facility’s narrow corridors alongside a prisoner, something that is against prison rules due to security concerns.
“You immediately start to feel at home with these guys,” DuBois says. “But all of a sudden the guard freaked out. There were a few times when you get snapped back into reality.”
In one of their favorite moments, the photographers captured inmate Jack McNeil and a dog named Shelby playing with a water hose in the prison yard but again ran up against the ever-present constraints of their situation. The prison officials eventually told McNeil he couldn’t waste water playing with the dog.
All the dogs have since been adopted, including one by a prison official who was initially critical of the program, DuBois says, and Karma Rescue has plans to expand the program to six other prisons.
Josh Sanburn is a writer for TIME in New York. Follow him on Twitter @joshsanburn.