The unconditional love of a German shepherd named Joni saved the life of Sister Pauline Quinn. And for the past 20 years, she's been enriching the lives of prison inmates with a volunteer program that teaches them to train dogs for the disabled.
Quinn's inspirational story is the subject of a TV movie, "Within These Walls," premiering Monday on the Lifetime cable network. Laura Dern portrays Quinn and Oscar-winner Ellen Burstyn ("Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore") plays a drug addict and convicted murderer who finds self-esteem working with the nun.
Burstyn, who received an Academy Award nomination earlier this year for "Requiem for a Dream," is also an executive producer of the drama, which was penned by producer Robert J. Avrech and directed by Mike Robe.
"One of the remarkable things about the prison program is [that], very often, these prisoners experience unconditional love for the first times in their lives," Burstyn says. "It transforms them. I am thrilled with the whole concept of it."
Not surprisingly, Burstyn is a big canine lover herself. "I wouldn't want to live without a dog," she says. "I have cats, too, but the relationship with a dog is one of the most profound things you can experience. There is really interspecies communication. My dog reads my mind. There is real communication."
The actress first learned of Sister Quinn's effort from a documentary about dogs she saw on television. "I thought it was such an interesting program," she recalls. "I made it my business to find who thought of it and started it. When I discovered it was a nun, I said, 'There is definitely a drama there.' I tracked her down and she was really an interesting woman."
Quinn is excited about "Within These Walls," not only because it will give new exposure to her dog-training program but because it will enable her to share details about her past that she hasn't been able to talk about publicly until now.
"When you carry things inside of you that are not in the open, then you are always on guard," says Quinn, who lives in a Dominican community in Maine. "I think it is important that we learn to share."
Before becoming a nun 18 years ago, Quinn had been a teenage runaway who lived on the streets. She was raped by a policeman as a teenager, had a daughter and gave her up for adoption.
The post-traumatic stress became so great that Quinn nearly died from self-abuse. "She used to pour lye on her arm, bandage it and then would ride aimlessly on a bus," Burstyn says.
"She burned her flesh down to the bone. They had to put her arm next to her belly, so her flesh would grow over it."
Quinn was living on the streets in California when she befriended Joni. "I was so abused that I wasn't able to speak," Quinn says. "Joni helped give me my self-esteem back a little at a time because I was so wounded. She was what I call an 'image' dog--a German shepherd, a Doberman or a Rottweiler. A dog people have respect for. When I walked down the street with Joni, I [didn't feel] hurt."
As she became healthier, Quinn wanted to share her experience with others. She became a dog trainer and began a pilot program for prison inmates in Washington state. That has expanded to other states and other countries, with prisoners learning to train dogs to help people with various disabilities--from blindness to deafness to confinement to a wheelchair. The dogs are either donated or come from pounds.
Dogs, she says, "love us unconditionally, and people need that--especially people who are wounded, they need to feel loved. So the dog is very much a healing tool."
Quinn and her 3-year-old golden retriever, Pax, are constantly traveling to prisons to demonstrate the benefits of the program. "He's fully trained," Quinn says of her dog, who has a cameo in the movie. "I just had Pax in Rome!"
*"Within These Walls" can be seen Monday at 9 p.m. on Lifetime. The network has rated it TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children, with an advisory for coarse language).