Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Prisoners pair up with hard-to-train dogs

First of six parts. Joseph Davis was born a few weeks before Thanksgiving in 1972, better off than most. His father worked in a chocolate factory. His mother counseled troubled kids and drug addicts. In his crayon-colored memories, he conjures a happy boyhood in Germantown.

Inmate Joseph Davis asked for a challenging dog. He was given Mike, a feisty tan pit bull who had been returned to the Hunting Park shelter repeatedly for bad behavior, hyperactivity, and aggression over toys. (Ron Tarver / Staff Photographer)
Inmate Joseph Davis asked for a challenging dog. He was given Mike, a feisty tan pit bull who had been returned to the Hunting Park shelter repeatedly for bad behavior, hyperactivity, and aggression over toys. (Ron Tarver / Staff Photographer)Read more

First of six parts.

Joseph Davis was born a few weeks before Thanksgiving in 1972, better off than most. His father worked in a chocolate factory. His mother counseled troubled kids and drug addicts. In his crayon-colored memories, he conjures a happy boyhood in Germantown.

He cannot say exactly when or why his parents broke up. All he knows is that the corrosive aftermath splattered him with hurt.

Even so, it wasn't as bad as it could have been. His mother raised him to play by the rules. She trusted him to come home after school and take care of his sister.

He took pride in his self-reliance and cultivated a tough persona.

In middle school, he started to slip. He cut classes. Smoked weed. Sold it. After he dropped out in 10th grade, his life began a long, erratic descent.

He became a dangerous man.

Still, there were moments of grace. His son's birth. His fiancee's forbearance. His mother's faith.

And he never neglected his dogs.

Pit bulls, mostly. He trained them the only way he knew - with strict discipline when they misbehaved. He could walk into a store and leave them on the sidewalk, where they would stay indefinitely, to the amazement of passersby.

Three years ago, he entered a bar, robbed customers at gunpoint, and used up his last shred of forgiveness.

When he left for prison, he asked his fiancee to take care of two puppies. But she worked full time and had to give them away.

He keeps a picture of them on the wall of his cell.

Mod 3

The heavy steel door slid open with grinding, sullen deliberation. Twelve prisoners, rarely allowed into the concrete yard outside, filed through into the sunlit morning.

It was quiet. A stray cat darted across the narrow strip of grass along the side of the low gray building, sending a flock of sparrows chittering skyward.

The men had been chosen for this privilege from among more than 30 fellow inmates in the Alternative Sentencing Detention Unit of the Philadelphia prison system. A program they knew little about other than its name - New Leash on Life USA - and the basic premise: They would be given dogs to live with and to train for the next three months.

Most were lured by the possibility of early parole. That was the bait offered by the program, in conjunction with defense lawyers and prison officials. The real objective was more profound, more personal, and more ambitious than any of them would realize for several weeks, after they were in deep.

If they allowed themselves to care about the animals, trust the people running the program, and believe in themselves, they could redirect the course of their lives.

The three months would pass quickly and, for some of the inmates, it would not be enough. After years of broken promises, betrayal, and neglect, their bones were set. They lacked either the courage, the will, or the faith needed to imagine a different way forward.

But for those who were willing, this was the beginning of a metamorphosis of the soul.

Dressed in prison-issue light blue hospital scrub shirts and dark blue trousers, the inmates milled around, waiting for several minutes until, beyond the double fences crested with razor wire coils, a small motorcade rolled into view.

"They're here!" someone shouted.

The cars pulled into parking spaces. Doors opened. Five women and two men emerged, led by dogs pulling madly on their leashes.

Nicole LaRocco, a professional dog trainer hired by New Leash to work with the inmates and the animals over the next 11 weeks, had culled the dogs from a group of several dozen at two shelters. Dogs who had a good chance of being adopted were not considered. Neither were those who showed signs of aggression.

LaRocco also interviewed the inmates, who had been paired up for compatibility by prison social workers. Each team would occupy a cell with one dog, sharing responsibility for all aspects of his training and care.

"We try to give the easygoing dogs to the ones who haven't had much experience," LaRocco said. "There are always a few who want a challenge. So they get the dogs who are bouncing off the walls."

Prisons across the country have had dog programs for years, starting in 1984 at a women's facility near Seattle. But New Leash, launched in August 2011 at Philadelphia's low- to medium-security detention center, puts more focus than most on rehabilitating the men as well as the dogs. It also provides sustained support for graduates after they are paroled or finish their sentences.

Of the 52 inmates who have completed the New Leash program, 14 have been rearrested, which is about half the average recidivism rate among Philadelphia ex-convicts.

It is too soon to know the long-term effect of the program, but Warden Karen Bryant said the early results seem promising. "It releases an empathy in the inmates that they were not able to express," she said. "They have to care for a dog 24 hours a day, be responsible, show them love and care. . . . They need to learn more about themselves and others."

Each session, members of the New Leash team rename the dogs. "It's a fresh start for everyone," LaRocco explained. Since these dogs arrived a week before Halloween, the theme this time was candy.

Hershey, a scrawny, high-strung hound with jackrabbit feet, was the first to make his entrance, practically flying through the gates. He had been transferred from a shelter in Georgia, where, as word has it in the animal rescue community, strays are disposed of like empty milk cartons.

He was followed by Goober, a 2-year-old Pharaoh hound/pit bull mix with rosy bat ears. Goober had beaten the odds at the Hunting Park shelter. The staff there, recognizing how easygoing and smart he was, had kept him for months and trained him as a test dog to see if newcomers could handle sharing a cage.

Mike and Ike, from the start, challenged each other's turf. The pair would create the most drama, and shed the most blood, over the next few months.

A tan pit bull with golden eyes, Mike had been returned to the Hunting Park shelter several times by potential adopters. The last time, a couple who had kept him only one night decided he was "hyperactive."

LaRocco worried about the dog's reputation, but she saw promise in his intelligence and spirit.

"He's going to need someone with a strong personality," she said.

Ike, a burnished copper bruiser of complex genetic origins, weighed 80 pounds, 40 of them in his head. A Philadelphia animal control team had found him wandering the streets of North Philadelphia. As he entered the prison, his ears, which someone had cut down to cauliflower nubs, reached up to catch the sound of men calling to him.

The baby of the group, Rolo, was a 5-month-old cocoa and white puppy, perhaps part beagle. Yappy and tumbling over his own paws, he bounded into the yard, rolled over on his back and offered himself up for a belly rub.

Heath, a moon blue pit, padded into the yard happily sniffing the ground.

He was led by Ruth McMahon, a member of the New Leash board. She and her husband, Jack, one of the city's prominent defense attorneys, together with their children, have rescued more than a dozen animals from the shelter. Every year, they turn their Center City penthouse into a casino for one night, raising tens of thousands for the nonprofit.

Ruth had saved Heath's life. She spotted him as he was headed into the room at the shelter where dogs are euthanized and cried: "Stop! I'll take him!"

Prison would bring out his aggression.

Bad rap

Louis Giorla, commissioner of the Philadelphia prison system, was skeptical when Marian Marchese contacted him in the spring of 2011.

Marchese, a 60-year-old former Main Line ad executive, blew into his office on a gust of resolve. She told him about the suffering she saw while volunteering at the Hunting Park shelter. How, after watching Cell Dogs on Animal Planet, she came up with the idea of pairing unwanted dogs with inmates who could train them to be good pets. And that she hoped he would be more open-minded than officials at half a dozen other prisons around the state who had rejected her proposal.

Giorla understood their reluctance.

"We feed, we medicate, we maintain custody," he said. "The less programming there is, the more control, the more time and the more resources you have."

Marchese had come prepared.

Yes, she said, the program creates more work for officers. But inmates who are productive and happier are less violent and easier to manage.

Yes, she said, the public has little compassion for inmates and even less willingness to invest in their rehabilitation. But New Leash is a nonprofit organization, funded primarily through donations.

And yes, she said, pit bulls from the shelter can be scary. She showed him a scar from her firsthand experience.

But the dogs are screened carefully. Furthermore, the state spends an average of $117 a day on each inmate. For purely economic reasons, how could anyone object to a program that helps prisoners leave with a marketable skill, able to support themselves and not re-offend?

Giorla agreed.

Too many prisoners wait out their sentence in suspended animation, he said. They play cards, watch TV, or lie in their cots, heads turned to the wall.

He consulted with Karen Bryant, the warden who oversees the Alternative Sentencing Detention Unit where New Leash would operate. She was wary of pit bulls, but believed it was worth a try.

Despite the inherent harshness of life within the barren 8-by-10 cells, real rehabilitation can happen.

"Prisons," she said, "get a bad rap."

Hello, I love you

Along with the inked graffiti covering their bodies - Chinese letters, teardrops, hearts, a spider web, and the names of women they once loved - more than half of the inmates bore the tattoos of violence as well. They'd been shot or knifed in their bellies and backs, necks, shoulders, legs, and wrists. Drug dealers and thieves all, a few had served more than a decade in state prison before landing behind the county's walls for probation violations.

All 12 had spent most of their lives in criminal quicksand.

The youngest, Corey Maxey, a former high school football star at Dobbins Tech, was only 19. James Barkley and Ruben Perez, the oldest at 54, were career criminals for whom prison was a second home. A few had crossed paths as children. Jamal Thompson and Donte Waters had been in juvenile detention together. Joseph Davis and Dominic Hayes went to the same middle school.

"OK!" said Laura Muller. "Who's first? Let's go. Meet your pups!"

Muller, a brash redhead in her late 20s, works as a technician in an emergency veterinary hospital. A tough woman who had survived her own difficult childhood, she would teach the inmates about the scourge of puppy mills and dogfighting, the importance of neutering and spaying, and proper grooming.

Muller would be assisted by Elliott Glover, an inmate who had completed the last session of New Leash but had not been granted early parole.

Glover, 37, was raised in a group home after his alcoholic mother could not care for him. A college graduate with a degree in finance, he had been earning six figures in 2003 at a bank before he slipped.

He was convicted of embezzling $100,000 and spent 18 months in Graterford. After his release, the felony conviction limited his job options. In 2012, he was working at a Jiffy Lube, married with two children, when he stole a credit card to buy $200 in food.

At the start of the new session, New Leash asked Glover to help mentor the participants. He agreed, although he didn't anticipate being much help. His wife was expecting a baby soon, and he saw himself as a short timer.

"I'm hoping to be out in a week or two, God willing," he said.

Still, it felt good to be trusted with the job. Glover joined the New Leash staff in the yard and gave inmates tips when they met their dogs for the first time.

"Keep them six feet apart, gentlemen," Glover warned. Until the trainers could be sure that the dogs all got along, they could not be allowed to play together.

One prisoner, Shawn Paige, hung back, chewing on a straw, watching from near the prison entrance.

A rangy, sloe-eyed 22-year-old, his face fixed in a glum mask, Paige unsettled some of the New Leash staff. He spoke little and displayed no emotion, but beneath his solemn exterior lay a gentleness that would gradually emerge.

Paige's childhood was a ragged trail of neglect. At 5, he was taken from his mother, who was a crack addict in North Philadelphia. He lived with a foster family until his early teens, when authorities returned him to his mother. Since then, he had been in and out of so many homes, jails, and programs that he could not reconstruct the chronology of his life. In a journal, he tried to draw a timeline, to no avail.

"I worked so hard to forget the bad things that happened," he said, "now, I can't remember."

At some point in a juvenile facility in Phoenix, where he earned his G.E.D., he trained dogs as part of the curriculum. "But these dogs here come from shelters," he said. "They're scary."

Over the next few days, he would warm quickly to his dog, Heath.

The relationship wouldn't last.

Like Paige, another of the younger inmates, Jamal Thompson, was afraid of the dogs. A muscular, mischievous man-boy of 21 from South Philadelphia, he had managed, despite his juvenile record for theft, trespassing, and dealing drugs, to complete a semester at junior college.

One of five children, all with different fathers, Thompson lived primarily with his grandmother. His mother first went to jail when he was 3, and throughout his childhood, she would be incarcerated again and again. Knowing he never had a pet growing up and sensing Thompson's playfulness, the dog trainer LaRocco had matched him well with Hershey, the hyperkinetic hound who got along with everyone.

Thompson's cellmate, a 39-year-old former drug dealer who went by Dominic Hayes, one of six aliases, showed tepid interest. He would remain a benign, enigmatic presence, but in the end, surprise everyone.

Bluster and nuzzles

Of all the inmates, 23-year-old Donte Waters, a handsome street kid radiating equal parts charm and threat, would face the greatest obstacle - himself. His dog, Goober, was the easiest to train. The animal's success, however, would not be a powerful enough antidote to neutralize the young man's bitterness and anger.

Ike's inmates, Barkley and Kenneth Rivera, approached him cautiously. "I used to take care of dogs for friends who had fighters," Barkley boasted, setting the stage for the next three months, when his actions would rarely measure up to his bluster. In the yard that first day, Barkley's attempts to persuade Ike to follow him failed. Ike dropped to the ground like a block of concrete, refusing to budge.

Rivera watched with a mix of amusement and alarm. A former drug dealer with the shortest criminal record of the group, Rivera, 20, was hard on himself. Most mornings, he woke up, looked in the mirror, and aimed invective at himself. His black hair was cut sharply across his forehead and he wore a thick, dark beard, but his manner was gentle, almost shy. Within a few weeks, he would come to believe that landing in prison was God's way of leading him from a life of crime.

Rivera was comfortable around dogs. Growing up in Northeast Philadelphia, he had pet Chihuahuas and pit bulls. But he was less confident about controlling a bruiser like Ike.

For good reason.

Seeing Rivera and Barkley grow frustrated with the dog, Marchese rushed over.

"Very gentle," she said. "Use a sweet voice. He just got neutered. He was just in a shelter."

The most experienced with dogs was Davis, a 40-year-old gremlin of a man. He had held legitimate jobs in contracting, between stints in prison and hustling on the streets, and whenever he was home, he owned and trained pit bulls.

Two recent events made him decide to change his ways for good this time. The first was when his 19-year-old son was arrested and he realized he needed to set a better example. The second was when his mother came to visit and told him she had stopped celebrating his birthday.

"She said: 'I'm 60. I'm not going to be around much longer. I can't do this anymore.' "

Davis and his tough, but less assertive, cellmate, Gabriel Seda, 32, were entrusted with Mike, the dog LaRocco expected to be the most challenging. The moment Davis took the leash, he began issuing commands.

"Sit! No! Don't jump! All four paws! Sit!"

Marchese approached. "He knows nothing," she said.

At that, Davis dropped to his knees, nuzzled Mike and gruffly whispered, "I'm going to love you."


Listen in as one of the inmates discusses the program's effects, and view a photo gallery,

at LostAndFoundEndText

or or @dribbenonphilly on Twitter