Susan’s incredible organization tackles two vital issues: rescue dogs and prison reform. Canine CellMates brings rescue dogs into jail for a comprehensive training program that helps dogs get adopted and men get the skills they need to succeed. Beyond the Bars is an out of custody program that serves as a sentencing alternative. The men train dogs and learn important lessons about life to keep them out of jail moving forward. You can view the adoptable graduates of the training program here!
What is your training program like in the jail?
We have been working inside Fulton County jail since 2013. We move dogs from a shelter into a jail where they live 24 hours a day with inmate handlers. It takes a resilient dog to live that way, so we assess their temperament before. The program runs 5 days a week, it’s where the men learn obedience cues. The dogs are the heart of the program, but the focus is on the men. They sit in on classes to learn new skills, hear guest speakers, and figure out how to succeed after getting out. It’s a very comprehensive program. When the program ends, we do a graduation ceremony at the jail where the dogs’ new families get to come and meet the man who trained their dog. For a lot of these men, the graduation is the first time they have completed anything or been recognized in front of a group, so it’s really emotional.
Can you explain Beyond the Bars and why it’s an effective alternative to incarceration?
We got shut out of the jail when Covid hit, so I went to the drawing board and Beyond the Bars was born. Beyond the Bars is an out of custody program for men. The DA’s office approves all the participants; it’s used to divert men from continuing in the legal system or serves as a sentencing alternative depending on the case. All men go through the program in the same way, regardless of their situation. For the first 90 days, they work 4 half days a week training dogs, caring for them, and sitting in on curriculum. They learn about emotional intelligence, conflict resolution, financial literacy, parenting skills, and staying out of jail. After the dogs’ graduation, the men come less and less. One half day a week, one half day every other week, and then one half day a month. Start to finish, the program is a year. After the intensive phase is over, we still keep our finger on the pulse of what they need and require documentation of employment or educational enrollment.
How does working with dogs affect your participants emotionally and mentally?
We could run our comprehensive program without dogs and still have a massive impact, but we don’t. The dogs allow us to have a more positive impact on the participants. Our program targets repeat felony offenders, that’s where my heart is. By the time you are on your 4th or 5th felony charge, society has given up on you. It doesn’t mean they can’t change, it just means they haven’t yet. When you are in custody, everything positive in life is taken away and it forces these men to put up massive walls to protect themselves. The dogs are able to create cracks in those walls. They can look inside a human, see the good that exists, and help the men see that good in themselves. A lot of these men gave up believing that they had anything good left inside them, and the dogs are critical in changing that. The change I have been able to see is extremely profound.
What have you learned about the prison system through running this program?
When I started this, I knew I would fall in love with the dogs but I didn’t know I would love the men too. Some of my favorite people on the planet I’ve met behind bars. Our society is punitive and makes generalizations about incarceration. We think that people who are locked up are inherently bad and deserve to be treated horribly. None of that is true. The reality is that we all make mistakes but we aren’t all convicts. It’s easy to judge without understanding the whole picture. A lot of these men never had positive behavior modeled for them, so they didn’t know how to make another choice. Once they get in the system, it shouldn’t be a surprise when they return. Our goal is to get men out of incarceration and back to their families, while at the same time helping them learn things so they can make better choices going forward. The impact of incarceration isn’t just on the person in prison. The children of these men probably have the most positive impact in all of this. And the dogs, of course, who get forever homes in the process.