Staff Photo: Brendan Sullivan Gwinnett County inmates Steven Goldsmith and his dog Luna play inmate Lavaszai Wright in a game of rummy at the Gwinnett County Jail on Thursday. Operation Second Chance is a program where inmates from the Gwinnett County Jail help train dogs that would otherwise be euthanized at the shelter. Luna has been under the care of Goldsmith for about 2 weeks. The Operation Second Chance at the Gwinnett County Jail has saved 113 dogs in its two years of existence.
LAWRENCEVILLE -- Ziggy and Brauny aren't so different.
Both roam housing unit 1C at the Gwinnett County Jail, happy to be with each other and even happier to be alive. Ziggy, given name William Anthony Hartman, is there as an inmate on a wide range of non-violent charges -- drug possession, theft, burglary, driving on a suspended license.
He'll admit he was at the end of his rope when he was booked 14 months ago, and didn't have a lot of love in his life.
Brauny is not an inmate, but a pit bull with a gorgeous steel-gray coat and a warm demeanor. He's here because he was found in an abandoned house, nearly lifeless. He weighed 30 pounds and didn't have the energy even to raise his head.
Thanks to Operation Second Chance, Ziggy and Brauny are friends.
"They're like us. A lot of us were unwanted, at the end of the road," Ziggy said. "And here we are; we're partners in that. We're both at the end of our line in a lot of ways, and we can pull each other out of it."
Operation Second Chance is a program started two years ago by Sheriff Butch Conway, one in which dogs destined to be euthanized at the Gwinnett Animal Shelter are instead taken to the jail. After volunteers train them, inmates in turn spend their time training the dogs.
To date, 113 dogs have been spared death. Ninety-six have been adopted.
That's not to discount the roughly 300 inmates that have gone through the program, many like Ziggy, who have been saved in their own way.
"A lot of us have never really been a part of something positive," Ziggy said, hand running through his mohawked hair. "A lot of us have low self-esteem, or just really have never gained any of the spiritual, soul benefits of doing something good."
"And now we're in a situation where we're doing something good, where we're not getting anything out of it except for the satisfaction of doing something good ... To me, this is something that can change the world."
When Operation Second Chance was started two years ago, Gwinnett's was believed to be the first county jail in the country to adopt such a program. It's still one of the only, if not the only.
It was recently featured on the season finale of the Animal Planet show "Pitbulls and Parolees." Victoria Stilwell -- think a female, English version of The Dog Whisperer -- got some footage at Gwinnett County Jail for her own show just last week.
The program works for several reasons -- the jail has a good partner in Dennis Kronenfeld from the Society of Humane Friends, which helps select the dogs for the program and bring them in. A network of trainers and groomers working on a volunteer basis visit the detention center four times a week, helping inmates (primary and secondary handlers are assigned to each dog) learn the tricks of the trade.
Inmates, in turn, spend 24 hours a day with the dogs. They feed them, bathe them, sleep with them. They give their all because, let's face it: being in jail with a dog is better than being there without one.
"These inmates in that housing unit are model inmates," Conway said. "They don't want to be taken out of the program so they're very well-behaved."
More often than not, the dogs show a quick turnaround in demeanor and obedience.
"Once you bring the dog home, you may spend two hours a day with it," Conway said. "And that's a lot of time for someone at home, as opposed to the inmate being with them 24 hours. They get trained pretty quickly."
The whole thing doesn't use a single tax dollar.
The goal, of course, is for the dogs to be adopted, which most do. Those interested can peruse available dogs at www.jaildogs.org.
Conway said it's a program he hopes to see emulated across the country to save dogs and, just maybe, a few hardened criminals along the way.
"You see a whole different side of law enforcement and jails and what we can do," said Deputy Nina Lee, Second Chance's director. "You take these guys probably coming from a background where they don't understand love and human compassion, and it's the same with the dogs. You put them together and magic happens."