Canine CellMates launches Beyond the Bars

Canine CellMates is a program that matches men caught in the criminal justice system with rescue dogs and teaches participants how to train the dogs.

The Smyrna-based organization has launched a new initiative in partnership with the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office.

The partnership is called Beyond the Bars, an alternative pre-trial diversion and sentencing program. Canine Cellmates Executive Director Susan Jacobs-Meadows said she believed it was the first such program in the United States. This is part of a trend away from purely punitive approaches towards criminal justice and towards programs that offer alternatives to incarceration.

The program also advises men on the skills needed to avoid incarceration, and upon successful completion of the program, legal proceedings against them will be terminated, similar to the outcome of a successful program in the courts of Cobb County responsibility.

Before visiting the facility, Jacobs-Meadows introduced Gremlin, a puppy that will be on the program in January.

Canine CellMates Executive Director Susan Jacobs-Meadows holds Gremlin, while Fulton County District Attorney Jill Hollander strokes him (Photo by Larry Felton Johnson)

She said that each entering class has a naming theme for dogs.

“For this group of dogs, the theme is car models,” she said. “So we have Blazer, and Bronco, and Rio, and Sierra, and Tundra, and Shelby… so his name is Gremlin.”

Jill Hollander, an attorney in the Fulton County District Attorney’s Office in the Animal Cruelty and Elder Abuse Unit, was in attendance at the program launch.

The Courier asked him what was the appropriate terminology for program participants from a criminal justice system perspective.

Hollander said that since participants are brought into the program from several different points in the prosecution process, from pre-trial to probation, she calls their status “alternate disposition”.

Jacobs-Meadows said within the program, “participants” is the preferred term.

Participant John and rescue dog Zonda (photo by Larry Felton Johnson)

She said Canine CellMates was formed in 2013 and at the time was based at the Fulton County Jail.

She said that during their time in the prison, more than 400 men have completed the program and 150 shelter dogs have been trained and adopted into families.

When COVID-19 shut down the prison program, the organization worked on restructuring and moving into its current building, which it secured by securing a large grant from the Best Friends Animal Society, which were the previous ones. occupants of the Smyrna space.

Best Friends is one of the largest animal rescue organizations in the country, and they have made the decision to transition from a facility-based organization to one focused on foster rescues.

So that made the South Atlanta Road facility available.

Canine CellMates started moving in May of this year.

Dominique clicks the clicker as Corolla looks up intently (photo by Larry Felton Johnson)

Jacobs-Meadows said Canine CellMates has always been participant-focused and this is a rehabilitation program, not a professional training program.

She said “we wouldn’t be here unless the district attorney’s office takes a new perspective on how cases are handled, and so they have to approve them first.”

After the DA’s office approves a potential participant, Jacobs-Meadows interviews them to determine if they are a good fit for the program.

“And then we operate a bit like an accountability tribunal,” she said. “There is an intensive phase at the beginning, so the men come here four half-days a week. For the first 90 days, that’s a pretty big commitment.

“They need to have stable housing, I would like us to have the opportunity to offer them that. And we would like to have our own accommodation. But we don’t have it yet, ”said Jacobs-Meadows. “So they need to have stable housing.”

“While they’re here they work with rescue dogs in a group training environment much like the program we run (at the prison),” she said. “They help take care of the dogs in the buildings and wash the trails and set up and clean and that sort of thing.”

“And then they also sit in the curriculum,” she said.

“We started with conflict resolution. And then we developed emotional skills (and) parenting skills, ”said Jacobs-Meadows. “Yesterday we started with effective communication. And the final two weeks of the program will be “Stay Out of Jail 101,” which is all about decision making and goal setting. “

Tundra looks up at participant Iman (photo by Larry Felton Johnson)

She said the graduation will take place and the dogs will be ready for adoption at that time.

Participants will then move on to phase two, which will include group sessions.

The time spent by participants will decrease as they reach the end of the program. Ultimately, if they document stable employment or enrollment in an educational program, the lawsuits against them will be terminated.

Jacobs-Meadows took a tour of the building and introduced a few dogs with special needs that were not yet in the training program.

She said the program doesn’t use aversive training methods, and said those methods can change behavior temporarily, but dogs just think, “Oh, well, they’re watching. So I’m not going to do this.

Instead, participants teach the animal using a clicker, simple commands always using the same tone of voice, and rewards.

Back in the training area, the participants demonstrated the method.

Sierra, coached by participant Sanwan, ignored the tour group and was completely focused on her job as Sanwan gave an order with a click and tossed her a treat when she performed the task.

At the end of the training, Sierra became very friendly with the people around her.

Sanwan coaching Sierra (photo by Larry Felton Johnson)

Sanwan said he had been training Sierra, a black lab, for about two months.

The Courier asked her if she had learned quickly.

“From day one,” he said. “It probably doesn’t take the first five minutes for him to figure out what you’re trying to get him to do. “

Quartez caresses Zephyr as Jill Hollander watches (photo by Larry Felton Johnson)

Quartez said his dog, Zephyr, was also a fast learner. “As soon as you use a clicker and show him what you want him to do, he pretty much understands it.” You have to guide him. “

The Courier asked him what a typical day in the program looks like.

“We’re having fun,” he said. ” We are having fun. We are learning to train dogs.

“We learn to manage anger, coping skills, communication skills, fatherhood…” he said.

The Courier asked Hollander why the Fulton DA office is involved in Beyond the Bars.

“The Fulton County District Attorney’s Office is committed to serving justice with integrity,” she said. “And what it requires of us is that we look not only at the circumstances of the crime, but the person behind it and the circumstances …”

“This program allows us to take some people that we would otherwise have no choice but to incarcerate and give them the opportunity to make a positive change in their lives,” she said. “This program allows them to learn that some of the behaviors they have adopted in their daily lives have not necessarily been the best.”

“This program offers them the opportunity to learn how to better manage this conflict and other circumstances in their life that would cause them to make bad choices, or the bad choices, which has led them to get involved in the system. criminal justice, learning different ways to learn, to deal with the circumstances they find in their life.

“By working with dogs and learning to resolve conflicts, learning that there are ways to deal with a circumstance other than through violence, threats, force or intimidation, we hope they will be able to better equip themselves to manage their lives and become a better person, ”said Hollander.

Participant Ray offers Rio a helping hand (Photo by Larry Felton Johnson)

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