By Mark Woolsey
A program that utilizes animal shelter dogs to rehabilitate Fulton County jail inmates has set up a physical presence in Cobb County and may explore the possibility of expanding its services here.
Canine CellMates has aided more than 400 jail residents by pairing with the rescue animals. The inmates work with selected dogs over a 10-week course to prepare them for adoption. The program also includes classes to teach program participants work and social skills ranging from financial literacy, budgeting and resume writing to critical thinking, emotional intelligence and conflict resolution.
The program’s operated in Fulton County since 2013, but has not had a permanent home until now.
“I heard a rumor that Best Friends Animal Society would be giving up its Atlanta building,” said Susan Jacobs-Meadows, Canine CellMates executive director.
“This happened over a weekend,” she said. “On Monday I called out to Utah (their national headquarters) to speak to someone.”
Jacobs-Meadows said that after months of negotiations, the local group landed what she called a “generous” grant from Best Friends enabling them to move into the building off Atlanta Road just inside of I-285.
“We were moved by their mission because we also believe in the healing power of dogs,” said Fraily Rodriguez of the Best Friends group, which gave up their local building during the pandemic and transitioned into a foster care-based model.
Jacobs-Meadows said having the physical presence will help in a number of different ways.
“We were (before) mostly this intangible social media presence that popped up in people’s news feeds,” she said. “This will give us more support and give us more credibility and awareness.”
Jacobs-Meadows said other advantages include having physical space to house the dogs taking part in the program, instead of remotely housing them and providing CCM a place to conduct their aftercare program, instead of having to meet former participants at various places in the community.
She said that can be an uncertain proposition because a considerable proportion of released Fulton jail inmates don’t have a stable living environment to return to.
It will also provide a home for a new pre-trial diversion program called “Beyond the Bars” which will be coordinated through the Fulton district attorney’s office. It will be the first such program in the country to center around shelter dogs, said officials.
Men who are referred to the program will come to the new headquarters four days a week for 90 days, will obedience-train and work on socializing the dogs the dogs and will take a series of classes.
Jacobs-Meadows said the participants will be vetted and the program will be run like an accountability court. Under the accountability court model, successful completion of the program leads to dismissal of charges or avoidance of prison time.
In both cases, said Jacobs-Meadows, working closely with the animals is key.
‘Our program is rehabilitative and not vocational,” she said. ”The dogs are the magic of our program.”
“These men are on average on their third felony. By the time someone has been arrested and incarcerated as long as they have they have a very thick wall around them for self-preservation purposes, “said Jacobs-Meadows,
The program, she said, helps the inmates to care for “something outside themselves” and start to see value in themselves as well.
While not having specific data, she feels that the recidivism rate for those taking part is much lower than the average metro Atlanta rate of around 70 percent within two years for those released from lockup. Jacobs-Meadows thinks it may be as high as 20 percent for them.
She said while the grant from Best Friends should carry them through most of their first year’s rental payments for the new facility, the program will need to raise some three to 400 thousand dollars annually.
She said once the transition to the new headquarters if complete, they’ll seek to expand the program to other county jails including Cobb.