Pep the Dog Was Sentenced to Life in Prison in the 1920s — and Improved the Prison System in the Process

Though "Pep the Black" was sentenced to life in prison for murder, he was an ideal cellmate. Not only was this 1920s convict innocent of his crime, but he was also a dog. A literal labrador retriever.

Reform, Shreform

The story starts in the 1920s at Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary, the largest and most expensive public building in history at the time of its construction. It was one of the first prisons to isolate prisoners as a rehabilitation tool. Before Eastern State, it was standard to force inmates into silent labor "with the goal of punishing the accused instead of reforming them," reports Now I Know.

Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot wanted to help change the state of the U.S. prison system. He believed inmates could be reformed, and solitary confinement was not the way. Enter Pep, the Pinchots' black lab who liked to chew cushions.

A Lab Experiment

The Pinchot family bred labradors, which gave the governor an idea. He "sentenced" Pep, who was a relatively bad-behaved dog, to life in prison at Eastern State for murdering his wife's cat. This cutesy backstory (he wasn't really a kitty killer) was much more fun than simply saying Pinchot was donating a therapy dog. The prison played along with the colorful tale, too. Pep had his mugshot snapped with his inmate number, C2559. Not a real inmate himself, Pep freely roamed around as the cutest morale-booster in the cell block.

Exterior view

Local newspapers took the backstory a little too seriously. Headlines painted it all as fact, using it to smear the Republican Pinchot a bit. But all's well that ends with a happy pup cheering up inmates and staff alike, right? Eastern State Penitentiary ceased operations in 1971, but the historic site now welcomes tourists, and the furry tale is one of many colorful stories within the large stone walls.

Pep's Pup Legacy

It's possible Pep inspired change in the entire U.S. prison system. Today, there are numerous prison animal programs in place. These programs help inmates learn compassion, hone new skills, earn wages or privileges, and chill with cute animals. And many of the dogs may have otherwise been euthanized so they get a new buddy, too. Everyone wins. According to a literature review from the Massachusetts Department of Correction, "anecdotal reports from staff, inmates, and recipients of the service dogs are overwhelmingly positive."

A study published in the Journal of Family Social Work found that these programs resulted in strong emotional and behavioral benefits for inmates in two Kansas prisons. These benefits appear to stay with the inmates, too. The Pontiac Tribune reports that the nationwide recidivism rate hovers around 50 percent. The Leader Dogs for the Blind program, which pairs future service dogs with inmates, has a recidivism rate of just 11 to 13 percent. Surely, Pep is somewhere wagging his tail right now.

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Explore what modern prisons are like in "American Prison: A Reporter's Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment" by Shane Bauer, named one of the 10 Best Books of 2018 by the New York Times Book Review. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

Written by Joanie Faletto August 1, 2017

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