Prisoners at the Forsyth Correctional Center and homeless dogs at the Forsyth Humane Society have both been somehow rejected by society, but the bond between man and dog is never stronger than when they come together.
“A New Leash on Life” is a program of the correctional center and the Humane Society that allows the men to provide behavioral training for the dogs as they develop new life skills for themselves.
“Many of the men at the center have never had anyone show care and compassion for them. The same is true for the dogs. They’re often considered society’s throwaways,” said Candide Jones, a program volunteer and board member of the Forsyth Humane Society.
Participating inmates and dogs are carefully screened. Inmates, including some who have life sentences, go through a comprehensive application process. The chosen dogs have behavioral problems like shyness or rambunctiousness that can be addressed through training. Truly aggressive dogs are not allowed in the program. Currently, six inmates and four dogs take part in each 10-week session.
During the training period the dogs live and work with the inmate trainers, sleeping in a special “Doggie Dorm” at the correctional center. With help from the Winston-Salem Dog Training Club, inmates learn to provide house-training, basic obedience skills, agility training, grooming and other socialization support. Compassion and discipline go hand in hand.
Jones said that prisons are self-segregating societies — Latinos congregate with Latinos, blacks with blacks, whites with whites – but “The New Leash on Life” program intentionally mixes men who have to depend on each other. She recalled one big man who exclaimed to her, “Man, we’ve bonded.”
“‘The New Leash on Life’ program helps the inmates train for a real job – something that’s hard to do in prison,” Jones said. “They learn discipline and accountability as well as marketable skills. We test the dogs on how well they have learned. The grades the dogs receive mean a lot to the men.”
At the end of the training dogs participate in a graduation ceremony, complete with mortar boards. (The public is invited to the next graduation at 5:30 p.m. July 16 at the correctional center, 307 Craft Drive in Winston-Salem.) If a dog has had an approved adoption, the inmate has the privilege of presenting it to the family.
“It’s a pretty redemptive thing,” Jones said. “I’ve seen hearts changed. These men realize that they’re not destined to live outside society, that there are people who care about them. We draw a circle that includes them.”
Justice is compassion raised to an institutional level.