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Facing a test of faith

Obedience drills to reveal progress - or failure.

Ike, a fierce-looking 80-pound mix of mastiff and pit bull, stands in the prison yard. Headstrong and playful, he was difficult to train. (Ron Tarver / Staff Photographer)
Ike, a fierce-looking 80-pound mix of mastiff and pit bull, stands in the prison yard. Headstrong and playful, he was difficult to train. (Ron Tarver / Staff Photographer)Read more

The series so far: The 12 inmates of Mod 3 and their six dogs, who were rescued from area shelters, have been living together since late October. The first few weeks were difficult. One of the dogs, Heath, quickly grew aggressive and had to leave. He was replaced by Peanut Chew, a white pit bull who had been confined to a basement for a year. And Mike and Ike got into a fight when their inmates disobeyed the rules to keep them apart.

Third of six parts.

Plastic chairs clattered into place around the long table in the small prison library. Following a self-imposed routine, the inmates settled into the same spots, next to the same inmates, every time.

They were laughing and talking when the dog trainer, Nicole LaRocco, walked in.

"I have news for you," she announced. The men fell silent. "Your dogs are going to be given the AKC Canine Good Citizen Test."

A judge from the American Kennel Club, she said, was going to put the dogs through a series of obedience exercises. They had a month to prepare.

"So far, New Leash has a perfect record," she said. "All our dogs have passed."

Tall and athletic, the 33-year-old dog trainer had won the inmates' admiration. No one wanted to disappoint her.

"Listen," she said. "You can't use Gentle Leaders, or harnesses or treats."

The men looked stunned.

The inmates had signed up for the New Leash on Life program because it offered relief from boredom and the chance for early parole. A month in, they found themselves invested - emotionally in the dogs they came to love, and personally because their pride was on the line.

Their competence was being judged, their dedication was being measured, and their success or failure mattered.

Merely by stepping forward, they had bargained with their most valuable currency - respect.

Respect, said Philadelphia Prisons Commissioner Louis Giorla, is also the most critical piece in an inmate's rehabilitation. In New Leash, Giorla said, prisoners earn props for their humanity, not their swagger.

The trick is getting them to believe that the institution is acting in their best interest.

"It's a struggle. There's a trust factor. There's an anger factor. We have 9,000 people here in custody, and they didn't check in."

In the library, LaRocco outlined the test.

The dogs would have to sit and stay, heel on a loose leash, allow a stranger to brush their coats and examine their teeth and ears, and remain composed when confronted with a loud noise. They would have to stay with a stranger while the inmate moved out of sight for three minutes. And, finally, they would have to walk through a crowd without jumping on anyone.

"But a dog is friendly," protested Corey Maxey, the 19-year-old former high school football star. "Why can't he. . . ."

"Jump on you?" LaRocco finished his sentence. "Because it's not good manners."

James Barkley, the grandfather of the group, turned to Maxey testily. "I have a $3,000 suit on and your dog jumps on me?"

Maxey shot him an annoyed look.

"The whole test only takes 10 minutes," LaRocco assured them, then added, "Also, any dog that nips is not a good citizen and will be dismissed from the test."

"Normally," LaRocco said, "it takes a year and a half to train a dog to pass this. But this program is accelerated."

Maxey rolled his eyes.

"This is easy for us!" Barkley puffed - ironically, because he had done little to train his dog.

Joseph Davis, the gruff inmate who was working diligently with his tan pit bull, Mike, had the opposite reaction. "I wouldn't say this is easy," he said anxiously.

Separation blues

Gabriel Seda and Ruben Perez were in the yard the night a corrections officer found a group of inmates smoking cigarettes.

A violation of prison rules could get New Leash inmates thrown out of the program. Because cigarettes were contraband, Seda and Perez were sent to a separate cell block where their privileges were restricted. They would have to wait there until a prison board reviewed their case.

When the dogs were in the hall for training, Seda watched sadly from behind a thick glass wall.

After 10 days, the board exonerated both inmates and the New Leash staff welcomed them back. Their cellmates, however, were not so thrilled.

Perez, a cobble-skinned, taciturn man with 54 hard years behind him, barely participated in classes and had been rough with Peanut Chew.

In Perez's absence, Shawn Paige had made progress with the dog, who had been kept in a basement and was chronically agitated. Paige, long-limbed and loping, would run the dog in the hall to burn off his anxiety before training sessions.

The 23-year-old inmate had such a tangled past, he could not unravel the timeline of his own life.

He had dropped out of school at 15, "I felt ashamed," he said. "I had my secrets." After multiple arrests for drug dealing and car theft, he was sent to a juvenile facility.

"They geared me right," he said. But on his return to the city, he fell in with a woman in the drug game. He landed back in prison after selling marijuana to an undercover cop.

Paige never raised his voice, and LaRocco was constantly urging him to speak clearly so his dog could hear commands.

With the clicker, however, he was a wizard. He would give a command and, the instant his dog moved in the right direction, signal approval with a click and a treat.

Paige's patience was so constant and his reflexes so quick, he was able to teach Peanut Chew to "settle" - a difficult command requiring the dog to lie on his side and rest his head on the ground.

Now that Perez was back, Paige and Peanut Chew seemed on edge.

Without a cellmate, life had been simpler for Davis, too. He had dominated Mike's training from the start and now, after a week and a half of sole custody, he and the dog were inseparable.

Seda would never be able to compete for Mike's affection or attention.

A 32-year-old father of three, Seda had worked successfully in a Lansdale factory before relapsing into drugs. He had the build and bearing of a bantamweight boxer, and his perpetually furrowed brow made him look angry. In truth, he merely needed glasses and did not want to ask the medical staff for a pair.

For a tough guy, Seda was surprisingly demonstrative with Mike and openly acknowledged that he had missed him.

"I wasn't sleeping so good without him," he said. "The days were much longer."

First run-through

While Seda was away, Mike's wounds from the fight with Ike had healed and the daily practice with Davis had paid off.

With the exception of one effusive jump during the walk through the crowd, Mike aced every exercise on the test.

"Tell him, 'good boy!' " LaRocco said.

"Got to get better," said Davis. He was striving for perfection.

"Want to see his new trick?" he asked LaRocco and then placed a Staples Easy Button on the floor.

"Mikey!" he said. "Is it easy?"

The dog pawed the button, triggering the recording, "That was easy!"

LaRocco showered them both with praise. "This dog was a total nutcase when he got here. What do you think happened?"

"Love," said Davis. "I think it was love."

On their way back to the cell, he and Seda kept Mike to the wall as they passed other dogs. After the incident with Ike, they were taking no chances.

When it was Ike's turn to try taking the test, Barkley stood by, allowing his cellmate, Kenneth Rivera, to handle the 80-pound copper mastiff mix.

"Sit for me, buddy," said Rivera, the shy 20-year-old who berated himself daily. The dog slid to the floor and licked himself.

Asked to heel, he refused to move and yawned, his huge tongue curled like a serving spoon. Asked to stay, he bolted. Asked to sit, he stood.

"You guys have a lot of work to do," LaRocco said. "He won't pass unless you get him to respect you."

Lie detectors

For the men in Mod 3, all practiced if not adept at deception, the dogs served as powerful lie detectors.

Many of the dogs were high-strung and hardheaded. Ike, especially, was as stubborn as a 2-year-old. Even so, he had made so little progress that LaRocco knew who was to blame, and that they walked on two legs.

A week after Ike's disastrous first test, LaRocco asked the inmates and New Leash staff to form a circle around him in the hall.

"He's going to come over to you and want to play. Don't. As soon as he comes near you, I want you to turn to the wall and ignore him."

Then she turned to Ike. "Sit," she commanded.

Ike looked at her blankly, sashayed away on his muscular haunches and, as she predicted, made the rounds. As each person spun toward the wall like a ballerina in a music box, Ike tilted his head and looked back at LaRocco quizzically.

"This is perfect," she said. "You should see his face. He's like, what's wrong? Why won't anyone pay attention to me?"

Ike nudged his nose into backsides and tried to wedge himself between the people and the walls. At last, he gave up and headed back to LaRocco.

"Good boy!" she cried, then pulled out a rope and began playing tug-of-war.

When she told him to drop it, Ike gripped harder. LaRocco tried to wait him out, pulling up on his collar. He would not relent.

"You are such a brat," she said. She sat in a chair, pulled the rope tightly around her knees, and leaned back hard.

Instead of letting go, Ike worked his teeth deep into the outside strands. For a full five minutes, LaRocco resisted. Her arms had almost lost their strength when Ike finally let go.

"Good boy!" Rivera cried.

"No!" chided LaRocco. "Not good boy. There was nothing good about that. I want to see him drop something every day. He has to learn that if you want to play a game, you have to play by the rules. He definitely needs a dose of 'nothing in life is free.' "

"Usually we just say, 'keep it,' " Rivera said sheepishly.

"He is like the king of blowing you off," LaRocco said. Then she warned Barkley and Rivera that it would be up to them to end the reign of Ike.

Pushing buttons

On cold days the heat cranked, especially in the library where the men met for their life-skills course. Several inmates, sweat glittering on their foreheads, asked the instructor, Darlene McClain, to open the door.

The objective this day was to help the men see beyond the walls, both literal and figurative, and imagine a brighter future.

"Until you forgive yourself," McClain said, "you can't move forward. You have to drop your baggage. . . . I want everyone to make a wish list for life. No restrictions on how much it will cost or how it can be achieved."

Hunching over legal pads, the inmates started writing. "1. A home. 2. A better relationship. 3. Car. 4. Good paid job," wrote one.

"To run a gim," wrote another.

"1. My freedom. 2. A good job. 3. My own business," a third man wrote, and further down his list, "6. To be there for my family when they need me."

The next assignment was to describe an ideal place.

"It can be anything," McClain said. "Even unrealistic."

Paige raised his hand. "How do you spell Mediterranean?"

New Leash contracts with JEVS, the Jewish Employment and Vocational Services organization, to work with the inmates on cognitive behavior and job preparation.

The men kept journals and talked about how to weigh the long-term consequences of their actions. They practiced job interviews, and learned how to write resumes and behave in the workplace.

During one role-playing session, Davis acted as a prospective employer, interviewing Seda for a job. Choosing from a list of suggested questions, he asked, "What is your ethnic background?"

"Puerto Rican," said Seda.

"Tell me about yourself."

"Well, my favorite food is mango."

Davis scoffed, "I don't think an employer wants to know your favorite food."

"But you asked me to tell you about myself," said Seda, defensively.

They argued briefly, then moved on to the next exercise.

Imagine, they were told, at a business lunch you ordered a medium-rare steak and when the waiter returned 20 minutes later, the meat was overcooked. What would you do?

Davis said that if there were enough time, he would ask for another steak.

"You'll sound like you're arguing," Seda said, setting off another debate. They bickered until Davis suddenly leaned back in his chair laughing.

"You know what's funny? We're talking about what they're going to do with the food. With steaks!" Then he threw up his hands, "We're in JAIL!"

As the course progressed, the tasks grew more practical.

Almost none of the men knew their fathers and most had dropped out of high school, so they never received basic guidance - how to tie a tie, look a prospective employer in the eye, smile and shake hands, deal with a difficult supervisor.

Terrell Wood, one of the corrections officers assigned to Mod 3, occasionally checked in on the class, offering help.

Wood, 40, who had worked in the prison for eight years, could be forgiven if he had no sympathy for criminals. His 18-year-old son was murdered last year, shot in the back. The case has not been solved.

While he has no tolerance for the inmates' common defense - that they had to sell drugs and buy into the street life to stay alive - Wood believed they deserve a chance at redemption.

"I come from the same neighborhoods as they do," he said. "I try to be a realist. You have decisions you have to make as an adult and if the choice you're making is going to land you in jail or dead, that's the wrong decision."

He had doubted that the New Leash program could make a difference until he saw it work.

"It can change their lives," Wood said. "There's a saying in prison, 'One Man. One Armband.' I look out for me and nobody else. . . . A lot of these guys have never had anyone to love, to care for or about - anyone else besides themselves. Yes, a lot of them have babies - but a lot of them are kids, not fathers."

Although several in the group held legal jobs before, none had resumés and few had ever used a computer.

New Leash loaned the inmates laptops (disconnected from the Internet) so they could learn the basics.

"I don't know nothing," Jamal Thompson said, intimidated by the blank screen. He had completed a semester at community college, but when he tried to type his name, he did not know how to capitalize letters.

McClain called the men over one at a time to review their education and work history and compose resumés.

Maxey had earned a long list of awards - wrestling and power lifting championships, MVP on his junior varsity football team, among 2010's top 20 defensive linemen in Southeastern Pennsylvania. Rivera had sales experience working for Comcast and jobs in plumbing and mechanics.

Paige had written that his objective was to become a "vet doctor." McClain crossed it out and replaced it with "Looking to secure an internship within your organization that offers future growth," and suggested he set a more modest goal such as work in the animal-care industry.

From the back of the room, Thompson, joking, asked whether he should include a certificate in anger management under "education." Then he and Donte Waters started reminiscing about boot camp programs, GEDs, and proms.

"I was prom king," said Thompson, an impish man-boy of 21. "It was the best day of my life."

Waters, a street-cool 23-year-old who relied on his charm and good looks to get by, clucked his tongue.

"If they'd gone by the best dressed, I would have won prom king. But they went on education. Some Chinese guy who had no friends, the teachers picked him."

From there, the class discussion turned to the merits of hard work.

Thompson recalled with pride a day he spent on a farm in Florida during one of his juvenile programs.

"They took us to the director's house and we decided to work hard. The director told me, 'If I could have paid you, I would have paid you the max.' "

When it was Lorenzo Whitaker's turn to speak with McClain, he ambled up and stood at her side. Whitaker, 40, a loner who showed minimal interest in the program, watched curiously as she entered his information on the computer.

"You have no work history here," she said, looking up at him.

"I know," he shrugged, explaining that he had spent most of his adult life in prison.

"Weren't you ever out?"

"Yeah," he nodded. "Ten years. But I was mostly hustling."

"OK, then," McClain said, tapping the keyboard and reading aloud, "Self-employed."

Whitaker looked puzzled. "Robbing people is not self-employed."

Everyone laughed. McClain shushed them. They had wasted too much time already treating their lives as a joke. How many more chances would they squander?

"There is no humor in it," she scolded. "None at all."