Best of 2013 – Can Dogs Stop the ‘Revolving Door’ at Jails?

Elly Yu/for WABE

This week on City Cafe, we’re looking back at some of the best stories we brought you this year, including this one originally broadcast July 12, 2013.

John Mari last month met Daphne, a black and white pointer mix, who was  squirming with excitement.

“Me and her going to make a really good couple,” Mari says. “She’s perfect for me. She’s going to keep me straight.”

Mari has been in and out of jail for the last two years on drug possession and theft charges.

Until the end of July, he and Daphne will spend almost every hour with each other, as part of a new rehabilitation program at the Fulton County Jail.A broadcast version of this story.

Dogs like Daphne are set to be euthanized by Fulton County. But under this program, dogs are paired with inmates, like Mari, who will take care of and train them so they can be adopted.

“Any inmate is lucky to be able to enter such a program and help a dog out because if anyone understands a dog, it’s one of us inmates,” Mari says. 

But it’s not just the dogs that benefit. 

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, 67 percent of those who are released from prison or jail are arrested again within three years. And some jails across the country have found dogs actually can reduce the recidivism, or re-offense, rates of inmates.

There are about 25 jail dogs programs nationwide, and three in Georgia. 

In Chatham County in southeast Georgia, the recidivism rate dropped considerably since the program started last year.

Lt. Robert Brooks, who coordinates the program, says that of 35 inmates who’ve been through the program last year, only 4 came back. 

Without the program, he says the number would be more like 17 inmates. 

It’s really made an impact because these guys get in here and they get attached to the animal. And they bond with it,” Brooks says. “There is someone else counting on them to make a good decision.” 

Thirty miles northeast of Atlanta, Gwinnett County Jail’s program has been going on for three years.

Inmate Jeremy Knittel, holds his 6 month pup, who he named, Megan Miller Blossom.  

“This is my girl, she’s s­­­poiled rotten,” Knittel says.  

This is Knittel’s fourth dog in the program. He hasn’t been released since being booked once for violating his parole and twice for theft by taking. He says the dogs challenge him.   

“One of the biggest problems I guess a lot of people in here will face is a lack of patience,” Knittel says. “And you get a dog, especially like this or one of the difficult ones, you can’t help but to learn how to apply some patience.”

Deputy Stephanie Martinez-Peres, who oversees the program, says that patience, among other things, is what the dogs can teach inmates.  

“They learn to have unconditional love for something and some of them haven’t experienced that before, or have something love them in the way, like a dog loves you,” Martinez-Peres says. 

Gwinnett County doesn’t track recidivism rates in the program because she says it’s a holding facility and some inmates go on to prison, but she talks about the behavioral changes she’s seen.

“The guys in that unit are a lot less depressed. They have more hope for each day. They get up and they have a purpose,” she says. 

She says over the last three years, there have been virtually no fights in the unit – something that happens regularly at the jail.

To date, 400 inmates have gone through the program and about 150 dogs have been adopted, several by inmates after they’ve been released, she says.

Back in Fulton County, inmate John Mari’s dog, Daphne could be up for adoption in about three weeks.  

“Seeing Daphne going to a good home, and not being euthanized. Because, man, every dog, like people, dogs have character, they deserve a chance,” Mari says. 

As for Mari, he says he wants a better future, and hopes Daphne will help him gain responsibility and  ”get back to the fundamentals of life.”