Yesterday I had the honor of being invited to the fifteenth graduation for New Leash on Life, a compelling prison dog-training program that provides both the animals and the inmates a chance for redemption. At-risk dogs are paired with inmate teams who are tasked with the difficult, yet rewarding challenge of socializing and training these would-be pets, into adoptable animals.
I had never before visited the Alternative & Special Detention Center at Philadelphia Prison System. The barbed wire, police and fencing set the tone. After parking I headed toward the Gymnasium for the ceremony, inclement weather had forced us indoors. Once past the police at the entryway – the inmates and their dogs were lined along the wall. People mingled. Aside from the bright orange suits, it appeared like any other networking event.
One of the staff was quick to seek me out and made sure that I knew where I was going. Miriam, The CEO and Founder followed shortly after and welcomed me.
I wandered over to the inmates and their dogs. They seemed so proud—proud of their dogs, proud of their accomplishments, proud to be able to be there, to share this momentous occasion. Today they would say goodbye to their four legged charges. Upon conclusion of the ceremony, the dogs would leave with their forever family, and tomorrow the inmates would be paroled. They would be free of the constrains and rigors of the prison system—free and alone.
The ceremony began and we all took our seats. Introductions were made, individuals recognized. One of the core components of the program involves providing paid internships. Of the graduating inmates all but one had secured either employment or an internship. The program provides ongoing support and would continue to work with the individual, who hadn’t yet found an opportunity.
Jared Kerr, a longtime supporter of the program, was recognized. As co-founder of Philadelphia Pet Hotel & Villas, Jared and his organization provide mission aligned support to New Leash on Life. Jared spoke highly of the inmates’ dedication to help the dogs, to create a consistent environment and schedule, supporting the dogs in achieving mastery of positive behaviors. He applauded New Leash on Life and the Philadelphia Prison System for providing the opportunity of a second chance, for both inmate and pooch.
Finally, we recognized the inmates for their hard work and dedication; the partnership they forged with their dogs; and the teamwork they created with each other.
The ceremony was powerful. I can’t imagine the conflicting emotions warring within each inmate -the excitement of parole tomorrow, followed closely by fear and trepidation that the rigors of jail would be gone, the joy and the sadness, of saying goodbye to their four-legged friends.
To experience the pride of having nurtured and cared for a dog, that successfully passed its Canine Good Citizen test, and was only moments away from leaving them forever- A New Leash on Life for both them and their best friend.
Once all of the certificates were presented, one of the inmates, John, came up to say a few words. John spoke of the patience and teamwork, the support that the program provided and the underlying shift of his attention. The program enabled the inmates to focus on themselves, their family and their community; to mobilize positive energy and most importantly—to realize that they did not have to be the tragedy of their past.
The ceremony concluded with each dog showing off skills that he or she had learned from rolling over to giving not one, but two paws. The entire auditorium swelled with pride.
It's amazing how empathy can change your life. New Leash On Life is built upon the incredible bond that can be forged between a person and an animal—a bond that isn’t predicated on any judgements. Dogs don’t look at you any differently because you are in jail.
Last night was a terrible and exciting evening for those inmates. Alone and almost free. And today – today the fifteenth class of New Leash on Life enjoy parole. I wish these men much success in their endeavors and I wish New Leash on Life continued support from the prisons and from the community.
New Leash on Life is a PA 501c3. To support the dual rescue mission of both human and canine graduates consider donating today - website.