She lived her life at the end of a 3-foot chain – from which she tried to chew herself free.
He grew up behind bars.
Now the wounds of man and beast are healing through a jail-dog program in Milledgeville, co-sponsored by Georgia College, that has transformed an entire prison and saved more than 20 impounded dogs from death.
“We’ve talked about what it is about a dog, and we’ve come to the conclusion that dogs can soften people’s hearts,” said Assistant Professor of Criminal Justice Dr. Alesa Liles, who teaches “Canines & Corrections” at Georgia College.
“Dogs change the environment of a prison facility,” Liles said. “It makes the morale higher. The officers have better work days. They have fewer complaints from the inmates. They actually have fewer infractions and disciplinary issues. Fewer fights.”
Liles works closely with Debra Campbell, a Baldwin County Animal Control volunteer, who teaches dog-obedience techniques three times a week to inmates at Riverbend Correctional Facility in Milledgeville.
The prison-dog program – one of four in the state – saves dogs from being euthanized and teaches inmates obedience training skills they can use to get jobs when released from prison.
The program, which began in June 2015, prepares dogs for adoption but impacts the lives of canines, inmates, guards, wardens and students alike. Due to it’s success, the program is now expanding to provide emotional-support dogs for veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“It’s been a humbling experience for us all,” said Angela Reaves, Riverbend’s assistant warden. “This program has far exceeded any of our expectations.”
Like their inmate trainers, many dogs need to be taught new behaviors – unlearning actions that caused families and society to abandon them. Some were abused, neglected and unloved.
Nine dogs currently live full time with 18 inmates, who train in pairs using treats to teach basic commands like “sit,” “down,” “stay,” “leave it” and “go to your spot.” They also work on “roll over,” “sit pretty” and walking on the leash, as well as house- and crate-training.
Georgia College students visit Riverbend each month to observe what’s happening – comparing real-life to research studies they read in class. Senior Casey Roberts, a criminal justice major from Greensboro, said he was “blown away” the first time he saw the jail-dog program in action.
“I wasn’t expecting what I saw,” Roberts said. “It’s kind of phenomenal seeing all these different dogs being owned in a prison. It’s just awesome seeing the dogs give so much affection, which prisoners don’t get very often.”
As part of the course, students write city ordinances to strengthen animal laws. They also sell T-shirts, sweatshirts and mugs to raise money for the program and shelter. The GC Criminal Justice Club recently donated $200 from a fundraiser at Chilly Milly Yogurt in Milledgeville.
Georgia College also awarded the program and shelter a $2500 grant through the Office of ENGAGE, which supports students in community-based learning experiences outside the classroom. Some of that money will be used to build an obstacle course for jail dogs at Riverbend.
Before Georgia College got involved last summer, Campbell said she faced every problem alone.
“When I met Dr. Liles and saw her enthusiasm and knowledge, it was apparent she was a gem,” Campbell said. “Her willingness to work hard was immediately evident. She caused things to happen in this program that were previously not possible.”
Students volunteer every week at the Baldwin shelter, which impounds over 1,000 dogs a year. By walking and playing with dogs – students help them develop good social skills. This enables animals to trust humans and qualify for the prison program, Campbell said.
The students’ enthused interest also makes inmates feel their lives are valued. Prisoners look forward to showing students what they’ve learned about dogs.
“They give my trainers the gift of their attention, which is like gold,” Campbell said. “Some of these inmates have no family or friends who visit them. Being able to converse with people from the outside, who are interested in what they have to say, is a treasured reward.”
Senior criminal justice major Trevor Grijalva of Visalia, California, said the program changed his views, teaching him the power of attention.
“This became a type of symbolism to help me in my future career,” said Grijalva, who wants to work in law enforcement. “If you can just sit with someone who doesn’t trust you – but show care and acknowledgment – they become a new person and might not cause problems in the future.”
Prison visits are as much a lesson in psychology as criminal justice. The program leaves a deep impression on students, who sometimes enter class believing only what’s on television about prisons.
They come away with a different perspective – seeing inmates as people deserving love, kindness and respect, Liles said.
Dogs have brightened entire wards – including the “lifer dorm,” where men have little or no hope of release. The anger and grief was so intense there, inmates at first refused to let a dog into their lives.
But a little Chihuahua-Dachshund named “Buddy” changed their minds. The short, feisty brown dog has “little man syndrome,” Liles said. He’s fiercely protective of his inmate trainers.
“Everybody saw Buddy and they loved him,” said the dog’s inmate, a quiet-spoken man. “In the whole dorm, the attitude changed. Now you see big expressions on their faces. When people look down – he be a spirit lifter.”
“I’ve been locked up 35 years,” the man said, “and I forgot what it’s like to have a dog, something to hug. He’s a little bitty fella on the outside, but he got the biggest heart of us all.”
All dogs at Riverbend bend hearts. They include Edith, a tall black mixed-breed, who crosses her front paws “like a lady;” Garrett, a big black-and-tan German Shepherd-Rottweiler, who loves to “lick faces wet with kisses;” and Marley, a chocolate-brown Pit Bull with floppy ears, who likes to chase butterflies and roll up in his blanket “like a burrito.”
Marley was badly abused before coming to the shelter. He had deep scars from trying to chew through a wire fence. He was so thin, his skull and ribs showed.
When Grijalva volunteered at the shelter, he was shocked by Marley’s appearance. Some dogs arrive so mistreated, they’re scared of everything that moves, he said. But Marley’s “smile” and eager friendliness were still apparent.
“This is a great thing, but it does take a little part of my heart,” said Grijalva, who wants to adopt Marley. His own Pit Bull died seven years ago. “I want to prove to people that these are the best dogs on Earth. Marley is really perfect in my eyes, and I can definitely see him being by my side and being my best friend for many years.”
It’s difficult for inmates to part with dogs when they’re adopted. When Wally, a Shepherd-Boxer-mix, was taken from the prison, Liles said even the students looked away, crying.
It helps knowing their work gives dogs a second chance. In return, canines give prisoners a path and purpose in life. Inmates can earn a technical certificate, allowing them to get jobs as dog-obedience trainers when they’re released. The national recidivism rate among prisoners is 60 percent. But among inmates who train dogs, Liles said, it’s zero.
“I think we’re developing a lot of compassion and empathy in the guys, and they’re learning selflessness,” she said. “I think they’re also learning a very important aspect, which is delay of gratification. If you’re able to delay your own gratification and wait for the reward, then you are less likely to be involved in criminal behavior.”
Training sessions generally take eight weeks. But some dogs take longer, like the once-chained Savannah. The mixed Pit Bull entered Riverbend shivering and cowering.
Inmates just celebrated her 8th birthday with a sausage-meat cake and carrot candles. After almost a year at the prison, Savannah is finally ready for adoption. She now tolerates strangers, quietly watching them, and takes treats from students’ hands.
“She was chained and used for breeding by some pretty tough customers,” says her trainer, who looks pretty tough himself with a large-lettered tattoo “FALLEN” around his neck. But he’s tender with the dog, rubbing her back in circular motions and gently pulling at her ears.
“Savannah’s a shining example of how a completely broken dog can get a new chance in life,” said Campbell. The inmate politely interrupted by adding, “… and a completely broken man.”
“I’ve been kicked out of prisons. And that’s sad,” he said. “I grew up in prison. Never had anything to put my love into. This program has helped me in my personal growth, my decision making, my future plans and goals.”
“It’s a major moment - helping somebody else. You truly find a happier life,” he said. “By making sure she’s good, I am somebody. It’s really altered my life and lifted my spirits.”
He stood up and wiped his eyes. “Living here, you’re not allowed to show emotion - that’s the expected behavior among us from our own side. But I have to say, I get teary-eyed and emotional every time I come here.”
He turned away, choked up, then said, “Alrighty, Miss Savannah, you ready to go?”
He bent down. Hand and paw slapped together in a ‘high five.’
Then man and dog left the training room – together.
*** To see letters written by inmates to families adopting their dogs, please visit the program’s Facebook page. To adopt a pet from the Baldwin County Jail Dog Program at Riverbend, please contact Friends of Baldwin County Animal Control.