Beyond the Bars Gives Men Behind Bars a Second Chance at Life by Training Dogs for Adoption

Guard tower and fence surrounding a prison are seen as silhouettes with the setting sun casting an orange glow across the sky.

Prisoners in Atlanta are being given a chance to participate in a rehabilitative program where they train shelter dogs for adoption. (Image: Maigi via Dreamstime)

Ray Keith, a prison inmate from Atlanta, used positive training techniques to help a shelter dog named Rio to get adopted into his loving forever-home. Keith is a participant in Canine CellMates’ Beyond the Bars program, an innovative rehabilitative program. Since 2013, the group has welcomed inmates in the Fulton County Jail to participate in a 10-week program in which they learn how to train shelter dogs for adoption. The dogs receive socialization and training from the men around the clock in a specially designed dormitory for trainers, where they can also learn vital life skills. 

The Beyond the Bars initiative, launched last year by the nonprofit, is a sentencing option that keeps men out of prison. Instead of being imprisoned or progressing further through the legal system, participants agree to train shelter dogs for a year at a new Canine CellMates facility, which was leased with a grant from the nonprofit Best Friends Animal Society and built with the help of the American Red Cross.

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A rotweiller is seen in a cage at an animal shelter.
Instead of being imprisoned or progressing further through the legal system, participants agree to train shelter dogs for a year. (Image: Marina Ulyanova via Dreamstime)

Prison inmates train service dogs

Keith was one of seven men who graduated from phase one of the first class of Beyond the Bars on December 16, 2021. After a year of participation in Beyond the Bars, his criminal record will be erased entirely from the records of the state. In the interim, Canine CellMates assisted him in securing employment as a “bark ranger” at a prominent dog park with a bar.

The dogs, who are often rescued from Fulton County Animal Services, a municipal facility that accepts animals and is notoriously overcrowded, are also given a chance to have a good home.

An opportunity to get a second chance at life

Susan Jacobs-Meadows, the nonprofit’s founder, said that more than 400 men have volunteered with Canine CellMates’ Beyond the Bars program, and more than 150 shelter dogs have been adopted due to their efforts. The purpose is to provide repeat offenders with an opportunity for personal development.

In an interview with TODAY, Jacobs-Meadows said that she feels a sense of empathy toward people behind bars. “Once somebody’s in the system once, it’s bad. But once they’re there for the second or third time, their opportunity to get out of and stay out of the system is small. There are almost no resources for those men. Society is done with them. So they’re the ones who really have my heart,” she said.  

She believes that “the magic of our program is the dogs.” She also adds that “the dogs are what starts the process for positive change.” 

The magic of the Beyond the Bars program, according to the nonprofit group's founder, is the dogs.
According to the nonprofit group’s founder, the magic of the Beyond the Bars program is the dogs. (Image: Monika Hodáňová via Dreamstime)

Dogs are truly man’s best friend

When the dogs are adopted, they can alter lives as well. Jacobs-Meadows has happy memories of a brown pit bull named Aaliyah who found a perfect home with a family that included a young girl who had a degenerative muscle illness. Aaliyah was a fantastic fit for the family, according to Jacobs-Meadows. When they arrived to meet Aaliyah, the daughter requested that she be pulled out of her wheelchair so that she could sit on the ground to meet the canine companion.

“Aaliyah excitedly greeted everyone. But within two minutes, she walked over to this little girl, and she gently lowered herself down into this little girl’s lap and then just laid there. It was beautiful,” Jacobs-Meadows recalls. “It took your breath away because dogs are incredibly intuitive.” 

A life-changing opportunity 

In the same way that the Canine CellMates’ Beyond the Bars team provides long-term assistance to adopters, the organization provides long-term support to graduates of their programs. 

Jacobs-Meadows maintains contact with more than half of the men who have become friends with her on Facebook, have called, or have dropped by to visit the dog-training facility. A common occurrence is that they have recovered from drug or alcohol addiction and are now employed, volunteering, or have reunited with estranged family members.

According to a database maintained by the nonprofit Human-Animal Bond Research Institute, numerous studies have demonstrated the positive influence of dog-training programs like Beyond the Bars in correctional facilities. 

Holly Sizemore, chief mission officer of Best Friends Animal Society, said that it’s incredible to see dog training programs be a catalyst for teaching “the power of positivity, patience, persistence and love.”

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