PASADENA, CALIF. — I've always been very concerned by the fact that when people err, they're sent to prisons," says actress Ellen Burstyn.
"There are so few rehabilitation programs for them. And so often, people serve their time and they get out on the street and they don't really know how to cope and they just end up back in prison."
So when Ms. Burstyn heard about a nun who teaches female prisoners how to train dogs to assist the disabled, she was inspired to bring the story to television.
In "Within These Walls" (Lifetime, Aug. 20, 9-11 p.m.), Burstyn stars as Joan Thomas, a female inmate serving a life sentence for murder, and Laura Dern portrays Sister Pauline Quinn.
The movie is based on the true story of Sister Pauline's Prison Pet Partnership Program, which started at the Washington State Correctional Center for Women in 1981. The program went on to become one of the most successful inmate rehabilitation programs in North America.
The program began with an effort to save dogs from being terminated by the local pound.
Burstyn was thrilled when she heard that the program not only saved dogs, but also helped handicapped people while "prisoners themselves very often experience unconditional love for the first time in their lives and it transforms them."
The actress has always owned dogs.
"I've learned so much from them ... because they don't love you because you did something right or wrong. They just love you. And I think that's what happens to the prisoners in this program. They experience that love for the first time in their lives."
The program also provides them with key skills to ease the transition to civilian life.
"They develop the skills so that when they get out of prison, they become dog groomers and trainers. And it just seemed to me like the most amazing win-win-win situation," says Burstyn. "And when I found out that it was started by a nun, I knew there was a story there."
Burstyn, who also served as executive producer of the film, located the nun to obtain the rights to her story.
"She lives in a trailer in Maine, and she goes all over the world, wherever there's a disaster or crisis or a need of any kind ... and gives of herself," says Burstyn.
Sister Quinn's personal history is also an important aspect of the film.
The nun had experienced rape, homelessness, and physical abuse before finding the church. The character uses that private pain to create a link with the prisoners.
Says Burstyn: "She learned how to cope with her own pain through a relationship with a dog, and she wanted to share that with other women in need."