Inmates participating in the Jail Dogs program training one of the dogs available for adoption. Photo by Karen Huppertz for the AJC

Community Voices:Jail dog program gives inmates, animals second chance

Gwinnett Sherriff Butch Conway loves animals. He also believes in second chances. He believes in second chances not only for jail inmates, but also for the many abandoned furry “inmates” who land at the Gwinnett Animal Control Shelter.

Operation Second Chance, known as the jail dog program, began in 2010 as a partnership among Sheriff Conway, the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Department and the Society of Humane Friends of Georgia. The program saves dogs in danger of euthanasia.

Currently male inmates, located at the Gwinnett County Detention Center, are paired with dogs to provide training prior to adoption to “forever homes.” In October 2013, the program added cats in a separate unit with female inmates.

The sheriff and his staff provide the inmate housing unit, supervision, screening and selection of inmates for the program. Non-violent offenders with no history of animal abuse may apply to participate and are given training in how to work with the dogs and cats to prepare them for adoption. There are currently 23 male inmates working with 17 dogs, and about 15 female inmates working with 10 cats.

According to Deputy Jason Williams, who oversees the program, the jail dogs change lives. He has observed inmates behavior improve thanks to the accountability and purpose the program provides.

Amanda Sutton, an inmate handler working with cats, says the program gives her something to look forward to every day and offers her a chance to show responsibility.

Not only does the program give inmates something constructive to do with their time, it teaches them the benefits of positive reinforcement. These are skills they often take back into their life after incarceration making them better employees and parents.

“One inmate told me being part of this program was the first time he’d ever known unconditional love,” says Deputy Shannon Volkodav.

The program isn’t taxpayer funded. The Society of Humane Friends of Georgia provides all financial support, selects the dogs, coordinates veterinary care, handles the adoption process and supports volunteer efforts by the trainers and others.

Since its inception, the program has rescued 285 dogs and 40 cats from certain death. And while the program isn’t currently tracking recidivism of inmates, the deputies in charge are confident these inmates are not returning to crime as readily. Many continue volunteering with the program after their release.

It’s not hard to see that everyone involved is receiving more than a second chance.

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