Last September, Kelvin Simmons was in Fulton County Jail in Atlanta waiting for sentencing when he received an offer to train shelter dogs and take life-skills classes instead of being behind bars. He has been in jail for seven months waiting and was skeptical when he got the offer from the District Attorney’s Office and nonprofit Canine CellMates.
Canine CellMates is a nonprofit that began in 2013 at the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta. The program strives for rehabilitation and recidivism amongst inmates but also is dedicated to saving shelter dogs. Shelter dogs are placed with inmates in their cells on the condition that they train the dogs for adoption.
In 2021, the organization began to combat the mass incarceration problem in the United States through its out-of-custody program, Beyond The Bars.
Simmons’ offer was for the new diversion program, Beyond the Bars, where inmates can be released from jail if they agree to stay with the project for one year. If they successfully train a dog and finish the required self-help classes, the charges against them will be dropped. Simmons told the Washington Post,
“I’d been buffing floors and doing odd jobs in the jail to stay busy, so this came out of the blue and was a nice surprise.”
“I’ve always loved dogs, and here was a chance to make a difference,” he said. “When I found it was for real, I definitely wanted to do it.”
He was paired with an energetic mixed-breed dog from a local shelter named Blazer, and they formed an instant connection.
“He was locked up, and I was locked up,” he said. “We’d both gone through some tough things in life. And now we were both getting a second chance.”
Canine CellMates founder Susan Jacobs-Meadows wanted to create a program that helped people not feel so hopeless during their time in jail. Currently, the program is only available to incarcerated men who are behind bars at much higher rates than women. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, in 2020, 1.2 million men were incarcerated in U.S. prisons, while there were only 83,000 women.
Source: Karmalized Pictures/Youtube
Jacobs-Meadows brought the idea for Beyond the Bars to the deputy district attorney for Fulton County, Jill Hollander, who was immediately interested.
“I was happy to help because Canine CellMates was already so successful in the jail for both the guys and the dogs,” Hollander told the Washington Post. “There are people who need guidance more than they need treatment, and Susan’s idea offered an intense relationship between the animal, the program and the participant.”
“A dog doesn’t judge you — a dog just wants love,” she added. “And the dogs are completely reliant on these men succeeding.”
Hollander looks for men who have a pattern, whether addiction or theft, that are interested in breaking or ending the cycle. Men who have been convinced of animal abuse or other crimes like murder, rape, child abuse, or armed robbery are not eligible for the program.
The first seven men were selected for the program last fall, including Simmons. They have successfully trained their dogs and are now in the second phase of classes. Five other men have also been accepted into the program.
Simmons says he still missed Blazer, who has since been adopted.
“Saying goodbye was really hard; I was in tears,” he said. “Blazer is a sweet dog who loves to be held and snuggled. I told him that he was going to a good home and that he was a lucky dog, and he seemed good with that.”
Once he graduates from the program this summer, he hopes to adopt a dog of his own.
“This has changed my life. I’ve been to prison a couple of times,” Simmons said. “I have three kids, and I’m now learning how to be a better father and a better listener. I’m learning it’s easier to take a deep breath and relax.”
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