Dogs meet new inmate best friends

Photo by Kristen Ralph

Photo by Kristen Ralph

LAWRENCEVILLE -- In a dispiriting landscape of concrete and stainless steel, nothing livens up a cell block quite like a handful of playful dogs clamoring for attention and exercise.

On Wednesday, as part of Operation Second Chance, five dogs rescued from the euthanasia line moved into the Gwinnett County Jail and met their new inmate handlers.

The program is the brainchild of Sheriff Butch Conway and his wife, State Court Judge Carla Brown, and aims to prepare the dogs -- and prisoners -- for a better life once they leave the jail.

"This is a program I knew could work here," Conway said. "I knew we could make a difference not just for the dogs, but for the inmates, as well ... I believe in the end we will save many lives and the inmates who are part of the program will be dramatically changed for the better."

Conway said his jail is the first in Georgia, and possibly the country, to implement such a program. A self-professed animal lover, he said the "staggering" number of animals being euthanized for lack of resources convinced him that this was the right thing to do.

Volunteers and the Society of Humane Friends will provide all the necessary care, training, food and veterinary services for the dogs, Conway said, costing taxpayers nothing.

An outside recreation area, complete with holding pens, has been modified to allow the dogs plenty of play space. Conway said he hopes to expand the pilot program to include more dogs in the future.

Each dog will have two handlers and will sleep in kennels inside the primary handler's cell.

More than 100 inmates applied to become handlers, officials said, and 28 were selected.

Officials said applicants were screened and interviewed before being approved. Sex offenders and those with violent histories weren't even considered. Conway was looking for motivated, pre- and post-trial inmates who would be at the facility for at least six to eight weeks.

Trainers said they will choose dogs who are friendly but not wild; playful, perhaps, but not aggressive. Before being brought into the jail, they are spayed or neutered and given a clean bill of health.

Ideally, the dogs would be ready for adoption in three to six weeks, though it will be a case-by-case scenario.

Inmate handlers won't be left to their own devices, rather, they will be aided by veterinary technicians and professional groomers and trainers.

"When they go to someone's house, they are going to be outstanding pets," said trainer Margaret Parnell. "This is an exciting program."

Inside C-Block Wednesday, as some inmates drank coffee and played cards, others, like Jonathan Glass, met their new four-legged cellmates.

Glass, from Duluth, calls his Labrador and pit bull mix "Scrappy." Named after a pet he was forced to give up after being evicted from his apartment, Scrappy appeared a little nervous but seemed to be settling into the new routine.

Billy Watkins, who said he has three months left on his sentence, also considers himself an animal lover and said it's about giving them a real chance at life.

"For us, it makes the time go by quicker, but ... we've got the time to spend with these dogs to get their behavior acceptable so they can be adopted."

David Fleming, the primary handler for Lady, a full-blooded chow whose disposition matches her name, shared the sentiment.

"I get a personal satisfaction in knowing that this dog won't be put down," he said.

While the inmate handlers' mission is to prepare each dog to be adopted out, there's nothing, officials said, stopping them from applying for adoption after their release.

The bond, after all, between man and dog is often a strong one.

"If Scrappy's here when I get out, he's coming home with me," Glass said, smiling but matter-of-factly. "I can already see it now."

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