Ever Thought About Breaking Free, Abandoning Your Responsabilities, Running Away From Your Life?
The Atlantic|October 2020
Toby Dorr's Great Escape
By Michael J. Mooney

Toby Dorr never ran a red light, never rolled through a stop sign, never got so much as a speeding ticket.

As a kid, she was always the teacher’s pet, always got straight A’s. Her parents never bothered to give her a curfew, because she never stayed out late. She married the only boy she’d ever dated, raised a family, built a career, went to church. She did everything she was supposed to do.

She’s in her early 60s now, just over 5 feet tall, and with her wry smile and auburn curls, she could be your neighbor, your librarian, your aunt. But people in Kansas City remember Toby’s story. She’s been stared at in restaurants, pointed at on sidewalks. For more than a decade, people here have argued about whether what she did was stupid and selfish or brave and inspirational. In the papers, she was known as the “Dog Lady” of Lansing prison, but that moniker barely hints at why she made headlines.

Looking back now, it all seems surreal to Toby, like a dream or a movie. Watching news clips from that time in her life makes her sick to her stomach. She has to turn away. She says the woman in those videos is another person entirely. She can hardly remember what she was thinking.

“I was a rule follower for sure,” she says with a sweet Kansan lilt. Then she catches herself. “I mean,” she says, “except the one time.”

WE LOVE TO tell the world how happy we are. Our relationships, our children, our jobs: #blessed. But from time to time, it’s only natural to imagine a different life. What it might be like to escape our responsibilities, to get away, to start over. Of course, for most of us, that’s just a fleeting thought.

Growing up on the Kansas side of Kansas City in the early 1960s, Toby Phalen was the oldest of seven children— five girls, two boys—in a middle- class Catholic family. When she was 5, her father was burning willow branches in their backyard and the fire flared in his face. She saw him come into the house. His ears were gone and his flesh looked like it was rolling down his shoulders and arms, “like it was my mom taking off her pantyhose at night,” she recalls.

He was hospitalized for eight months, and Toby felt it was her responsibility as the eldest child to help take care of her younger siblings. Even then, she wanted to solve whatever problem was in front of her. She changed diapers, packed lunches, tried to provide stability in a stressful time. “She was less like a sister than like a third parent,” one of her siblings would later tell The Wall Street Journal.

Her father eventually came home, and although he could barely move his arms, he started working again as a machinist at the railroad. He had a big family to feed. Every day, he’d crawl under the engines and spend hours reaching up to service the equipment, stretching his scalded skin. And he never complained. “Deal with what life gives you,” Toby’s dad would say whenever he heard one of his kids whining. It became the family mantra.

Toby internalized the lesson. She was a perfectionist, the type who spoiled the curve for her younger siblings. She never got drunk, never tried drugs. In high school, she was the president of the pep club and dated the star of the baseball team.

She tried not to question her circumstances. She tried to be positive and just go along. She doesn’t remember how her high-school boyfriend proposed, for example: “It was probably something like ‘We might as well get married.’ ” She said yes because she thought that was what she was supposed to do. They got married at 20, bought a house not far from her parents, and had three kids in four years. The middle child, their only daughter, died a few hours after birth.

Toby dealt with the pains of life by staying busy and ignoring whatever hurt. Her husband was a firefighter, and Toby worked at a utility company. Her sons played baseball, basketball, football, soccer. She tried not to miss a single game. On top of everything else, Toby attended college at night. She graduated summa cum laude with a double major in accounting and business administration.

In 1987, when she was 30 years old, she started working at Sprint. She was a project manager specializing in systems development. There was always a new problem to solve, a more efficient way to do something, and she’d work relentlessly to figure it out. But her 14-year career ended with the dot-com bust of 2001.

She started working part-time at a veterinary clinic, assisting with procedures, answering phones, scheduling appointments. She’d always loved animals. As a girl, she’d sometimes wander out into the woods and stand there, listening to the sounds of nature, watching the spiders on a tree.

In 2004, Toby asked one of the vets about a lump on her neck, and the vet told her she needed to see a doctor immediately. It turned out to be thyroid cancer. It was treatable, but she was 47, and it got her thinking about how much time she might or might not have left. “I decided I wanted to do something to make the world a better place,” she says.

In the fog of cancer treatments, she spent a lot of time watching television, especially the Animal Planet reality show Cell Dogs. Each episode focuses on a different prison’s dog-adoption program, following inmates as they train unruly shelter dogs and prepare the animals to be sent to new homes. Toby decided that’s what she wanted to do: start a prison dog program.

Her husband dismissed the idea, she recalls. “Toby, that’s just TV,” she remembers him saying. “People don’t do that in real life.” So she tried to do the closest thing possible, and started a dog- fostering program. She made a website, and within a week she heard from someone at the Lansing Correctional Facility, a state prison in Leavenworth County, Kansas, asking if she’d have any interest in starting a program there.

“I was like, ‘Yes! Oh my gosh, yes, that’s my dream!’ ”

Two days later, she drove to the prison and gave the executive staffa presentation. Two days after that, on August 13, 2004, she brought seven shelter dogs into the prison, and the Safe Harbor Prison Dog Program was born.

The idea was to let inmates who qualified with good behavior house dogs in their cells. With Toby’s guidance, they would prepare the dogs for adoption. A lot of these men had gone years—some, decades—without the affectionate touch of a human. But a prisoner could hug a dog, lie in bed with a dog, tell the dog his troubles—and the dog would look back with nothing but love.

The program changed the atmosphere in the prison. During the day, there were dogs in the yard, dogs walking down the halls with their handlers. “Anybody who wanted to come up and pet a dog could do so,” Toby says. “It softened everybody up.”

More inmates wanted dogs. And more people in the community started calling Toby when they found abandoned dogs. She quit working at the vet clinic and turned the barn behind her house into a kennel, where she kept the dogs before they were assigned to an inmate. Soon she was working from 6 a.m. to midnight every day: organizing adoptions, shuttling dogs back and forth to vet clinics for spaying and neutering, letting all the dogs in her barn out to run and play a few times a day.

She also spent several hours a day helping inmates train their dogs. Before Safe Harbor, she’d never been inside a prison, didn’t even know anyone who’d served time. Now there were weeks when she was at Lansing every day, more than some of the guards.

In 18 months, she facilitated about 1,000 adoptions. In the local news, she posed for photos with dogs and inmates outside their cells. She started getting donations— money for dog food, leashes, vet visits— from across the country. She sent a weekly newsletter to thousands of subscribers.

Toby says her husband resented the program. Though she didn’t admit it to anyone at the time, not even herself, when she looks back now she sees that she was unhappy in her marriage from the beginning. She says that her husband would sometimes disappear to play golf. A few months after they were married, Toby decided she’d take lessons, so they could play together. But when she told her husband, he said that before she took lessons, she should find someone to golf with.

“Well,” she said, “I thought I would golf with you.”

“No,” she remembers him saying. “I golf with my friends.”

The affirmation she wasn’t getting at home, she now got from the dogs, who adored her. When prison officials and guards noticed the mood in the prison improving, she became popular with them, too. And the dog handlers? They seemed to love Toby most of all.


THE FIRST TIME Toby met John Manard, the sun was behind him and it looked like a halo. Other inmates would approach her with some degree of hesitation, but Manard walked right up and told her she needed him in her program. “I’m probably the best dog handler you’ve ever met,” he said.

His confidence captivated her. But she told him he’d have to get approved by the prison, just like everybody else.

He did, and a few weeks later he was among the prisoners gathered to receive their foster dogs. Most were happy with whatever dog they got, just glad to have a companion. But not Manard. He evaluated each dog. He petted them, examined them, then took a second or two to contemplate. When he finally made a selection— a pit bull mix, Toby recalls— she was amused by the whole interaction. She’d never seen anything like it.

Manard was 6 foot 2 and lean, with close-cropped red hair and an assortment of tattoos. The one arching over his navel read hooligan. He walked with a swagger. “There was just something different about him,” Toby says.

She learned that he was serving a life sentence for his participation, at age 17, in a carjacking that resulted in a man getting fatally shot. Manard said he wasn’t the one who pulled the trigger, and even the prosecutor said he believed that—but nonetheless, Manard had committed a felony that led to someone’s death, so he was convicted of first-degree murder. Toby didn’t think that seemed fair; Manard appeared capable of redemption. He was 25 when he met Toby. She was 47.

A few months after starting the dog program, Toby heard some inmates making sexual comments about her. When she informed prison officials, she says, she was told to keep some of the dog handlers she’d gotten to know with her when she was inside the prison.

One day she was with two handlers when another inmate threatened her. He wanted his girlfriend to adopt the dog he’d fostered, but she lived a few hours away and was having trouble getting a ride to the prison. It had been eight weeks. When Toby asked the inmate about it, he started yelling at her, swearing and raising his fists. Toby turned to the other handlers for help, but they were looking down, unwilling to challenge the man. She was certain she was about to get hit when she saw Manard walking toward her. She could feel the relief deep in her chest.

Manard told the man to go back to his cell. “Nobody was going to mess with John Manard,” Toby says.

He walked her out to the prison gate. As soon as she got to her van, she collapsed in tears. She could barely keep her hands from shaking long enough to call her contact at the prison, to inform him that she was never going back inside. She said she’d keep running the program, but only from outside the prison walls.

That was a Sunday. The next day, she says, she got a call back: Her contact in the warden’s office told her she could have Manard paged whenever she arrived, and he would meet her at the front gate and walk her to her appointments. He was only supposed to escort her through the prison, but Manard stayed with her during her training sessions. Soon they were spending hours together every day.

Later, the warden disputed the idea that Toby ever had an assigned escort. In an interview with The Kansas City Star, he said that she could go wherever she needed to in the prison alone. Of course, Toby was married, religious, such a responsible citizen—nobody at the prison could have anticipated what eventually happened.

One morning, Manard noticed that Toby looked distraught and asked her what was wrong. She’d been at the hospital all night, she explained. Her father had Stage 4 bladder cancer and had needed surgery. She’d come to the prison straight from the intensive-care unit.

“Well,” Manard said. “Thank God your husband was there to drive you.”

“He wasn’t there,” she recalls telling Manard. “He said there’s no sense in both of us not getting a good night’s sleep.”

Manard shook his head.

Continue reading your story on the app

Continue reading your story in the magazine