Behind the Bars: Dogs and Inmates

On Monday, October 24, 2011, a very unique graduation took place; eleven prison inmates and six rescued shelter dogs listened to distinguished speakers and received certificates. The inmates graduated from the New Leash on Life USA program while the dogs successfully passed the Canine Good Citizen program. Keynote remarks were provided by Judge Ellen Ceisler of the Philadelphia County Court of Common Pleas and congratulatory speeches were given by Warden Karen Bryant and Commissioner Louis Giorla of Philadelphia Prisons Systems. Family, friends, the New Leash on Life USA board members, and trainers were all present for the graduation.

How it all got started
About 4 years ago, Marian V. Marchese, a volunteer at the Animal Care and Control Team (ACCT) in North Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, wondered why so many wonderful dogs were ending up at the shelter. As a volunteer, it was overwhelming and depressing to see the number of animals “behind bars” in shelters across the country, with only brief bursts of happiness occurring whenever an animal got adopted. Just like in the U.S. prison system, there was always another to take that animals’ place. Marchese was feeling overwhelmed and was constantly looking for something beyond volunteering that would save more dogs lives.

One day while watching the documentary Cell Dogs, an Animal Planet® show that highlights different prison dog programs around the country, she became inspired. Deciding to join a prison dog program network in Philadelphia, Marchese quickly discovered there were none around. Not letting that stop her, she determined to start one of her own. While doing research on her ideas for the program, she learned of the astronomical costs of prisons and prisoners, and the high rates of recidivism, and became outraged. All the existing dog programs she found focused primarily on the dogs, but she wanted to do more—she wanted to work on both the dogs and the inmates; giving them both a second chance!

What is New Leash on Life USA?
The program Marchese created is called New Leash on Life USA, and is an 11-week prison program, where at-risk dogs are carefully chosen from ACCT and brought to live with specially chosen inmates. The inmates are carefully selected from the Alternative and Special Detention facility of the Philadelphia Prisons System, screened for a history of sexual abuse, convictions related to abuse of animals and humans, and demonstrative good behavior. The inmates are taught how to take care of and train the dogs while receiving a 24-hour, 7-days a week companion. Experts on animal behavior, animal health, life skills, and job readiness provide workshops to help enrich the inmates’ lives—with the goal of providing the inmates with the skills to stay out of prison when they are released.

The inmates have workshops three times a week that focus on life skills or job skills training. The classes cover everything from anger management and team building to resume writing and preparation for job interviews. A certified dog trainer provides training to the inmates twice a week. This training covers socialization, basic obedience, crate training, clicker training, walking on a leash, appropriate play with other dogs, and basic commands and tricks (i.e., sit, stay, leave it, down). A veterinary technician provides a weekly workshop on dog health, animal medicine, the benefits of neutering and spaying, illnesses, and basic hygiene (i.e., shampooing, brushing, and cleaning the teeth and ears).

The inmates are taught how to train their dog, preparing them for the American Kennel Club’s Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test. The CGC Program teaches basic good behavior and manners by positive reinforcement for the dogs, while the dog handler is taught how to be responsible. In order to receive the certificate, the dog must pass a set of 10 steps. Although the certificate is only a piece of paper, the dog receives invaluable training in behavior, which will help them find a good home. At the same time, the inmates are being taught discipline, caring, and responsibility.

For any of the ex-offenders who wish to continue in the animal care field, the staff at New Leash on Life USA works hard to pair them with internships. By working in a growing and successful field, the ex-offenders learn how to be successful and make something better of themselves. At the same time, they are able to transition into the community more smoothly. The city shelter, ACCT, and the Delaware County SPCA are three organizations who have offered internships to some of the inmates upon release.

The Success
Currently, New Leash on Life USA is on its third program with the Philadelphia Prisons Systems. The first program consisted of eight inmates and four dogs (cleverly named after celebrities who have spent time behind bars: Paris Hilton, Johnny Cash, Mike Tyson, and Elvis). Seven inmates graduated from the program and all four dogs passed their Canine Good Citizen test and were adopted. Three of the dogs were actually adopted by Correctional Officers that associated with them on a daily basis. Four of the inmates received internships, with one receiving a job as a result of the internship.

The second program had 12 inmates and six dogs (this time named after quarterbacks: Romo, Eli, Ben, Peyton, Brees, and Rogers)—all adopted at graduation. For the third program, six dogs (named after the MLB Phillies: Cole Hamels, Kyle Kendrick, Shane Victorino, Carlos Ruiz, Ryan Howard, and Chase Utley) were chosen for 12 inmates.

The achievements of New Leash on Life USA would not have been as successful without the collaborative partners they work with on a daily basis: Philadelphia Prisons Systems; Schnader, Harrison, Segal, & Lewis; The Marketing Department; Andreas Holm Photography; Pennsylvania Prison Society; JEVS Human Services; Grimm & Grove; Center for Outcome Analysis; Street Tails Animal Rescue; and Walkies, LLC.

What’s next?
New Leash on Life USA is working on several new initiatives, including a program for companion dogs for veterans with PTSD. They would like to use the same concept of shelter dogs providing companionship, with the veterans (rather than prisoners) obtaining training to teach their dog.

New Leash on Life USA is a program based on strong partnerships and a belief that everyone deserves a second chance. As the New Leash on Life USA website states, “Dogs. Inmates. Prisons. Society. All benefit from the New Leash on Life USA.”

For more information, please visit the New Leash on Life USA website at www.newleashonlife-usa.org.


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