Local prisoners give a future to shelter animals

For many Georgia prisoners the phrase “man’s best friend” is literal.

Throughout metro Atlanta and the state, nonprofits are partnering with prisons and jails to pair shelter animals with inmates. The inmates are tasked with training the dogs to assist in the rehabilitation of both animal and human before the dogs are adopted out to a forever home.

In Atlanta, Canine CellMates works with the Fulton County Sheriff’s Department and the Fulton County Jail. For the program’s in-custody program, it selects dogs from open intake shelters after conducting extensive temperament assessments to determine if each dog has the resilience needed to live and thrive inside a correctional facility environment. Once selected, the dogs move into the jail, where they live 24 hours a day with inmate handlers who also go through a careful screening and interview process. Then, the real work begins.

The 10-week course has dog training classes five days a week. During these classes, men learn the skills necessary to train their dogs in basic obedience because, aside from living with the animals themselves, the dogs need to be able to pass an obedience test to graduate from the program before going on to selected forever homes.

But, it may be the inmates that benefit the most. The participants take classes five to seven days a week that have nothing to do with training dogs, including personal development, critical thinking and public speaking. Further, there is a post-release component that provides assistance to the participants after they are released from their correctional facility.

From 2013 to 2020, Canine CellMates ran 26 training cycles in Fulton County Jail with more than 400 men participating in the program. Trained by these inmate handlers, more than 150 dogs were rescued from shelters before moving to their forever homes.

Credit: Courtesy of Canine CellMates

Credit: Courtesy of Canine CellMates

But, then the pandemic began and in early 2020, just as Canine CellMates had started its next cycle, the program had to leave Fulton County Jail due to COVID-19.

“We anxiously awaited the time that we could go back in with dogs, but we did not rest,” Canine CellMates Founder and Executive Director Susan Jacobs-Meadows said. “We planned, restructured and stayed optimistic that the best was yet to come.”

The best may have finally come in 2021 when Canine CellMates found a new home and headquarters in Cobb County thanks to a grant from the Best Friends Animal Society. Canine CellMates expects to be able to save double the number of men they can reach and dogs they can save with the building that will also house its new Beyond the Bars program, a pre-trial diversion program that is one of the first that centers around shelter dogs.

Credit: Courtesy of Canine CellMates

Credit: Courtesy of Canine CellMates

Beyond the Bars closely works with the Fulton County District Attorney’s office, under the direction of Fani Willis, to carefully select eligible participants to complete a two-phase program pre-indictment at their building. The first phase is 90 days and requires the participants to report to the Canine CellMates headquarters for four half days a week. The second phase is nine months and requires the participants to report to the facility one half day a week, then one half day every other week and finally one half day a month with scheduled weekly call-ins. At the end of the year, the participants will have charges dismissed, and if they are a first offender, the record of their arrest will also be suppressed.

In December, Beyond the Bars graduated its first class of Phase 1 participants, who are now back as Phase 2 participants. With its second class of Phase 1 just recently kicking off, Canine CellMates was also set to re-launch its Fulton County Jail in-custody program in February but was forced to put it on hold due to a recent uptick in COVID-19 cases.

Willis said Canine CellMates is an innovative program that benefits the community in many ways.

“It makes Fulton County safer by teaching participants the life skills they need to stay out of the criminal justice system,” she said in a statement. “That benefits all of us because it helps them become productive citizens, and they are much less likely to commit crimes again.”

In Gwinnett County, Operation Second Chance is taking on the mission of rescuing animals from shelters by assigning them inmate handlers that will train and prepare them for adoption.

Operation Second Chance, also known as the Jail Dog Program, started in 2010 with five dogs being pulled from the euthanasia list at Gwinnett County Animal Control when a partnership between the Gwinnett County Sheriff’s Office and the Society of Humane Friends of Georgia began.

In 2013, the Jail Dog program expanded with the introduction of Jail Cats, a program that mirrors the Jail Dog program but focuses on the canine’s feline friend. Since its founding, Operation Second Chance reported it has rescued, trained and adopted out more than 1,500 dogs and cats into new families.

Both Canine CellMates (caninecellmates.org) and Operation Second Chance (jaildogs.org) currently have animals awaiting adoption. Those interested in adopting a pet may visit each program’s respective website to find an application.