Former Fulton County Jail inmates helping reduce shelter dogs' time behind bars

A participant in Behind the Bars — an alternative disposition program led by the nonprofit Canine CellMates for people charged with felonies — shows off his dog training skills with Mint. The 2-year-old Dogo Argentino got his name, because he is described as being "cool, chill and like a breath of fresh air." (Chamian Cruz/WABE)

 A group of rescue dogs are helping men in Fulton County break the cycle of incarceration and adjust to life on the outside.  

At a recent graduation ceremony held by the nonprofit Canine CellMates, Curry walks into the room first, ready to show off his new skills.

He’s a small bulldog mix — black with a little patch of white on his chest.

He’s followed by Clove, Mint and Paprika. 

Canine CellMates holds a graduation ceremony for the seven men who completed the first phase of its Beyond the Bars program on Thursday, May 30, 2024. Shown above is rescue dog Curry. (Chamian Cruz/WABE)

Each dog is on a leash held by one of the seven men graduating from the first phase of the nonprofit’s Beyond the Bars program.

The alternative disposition program has operated outside of the Fulton County Jail since 2021, pairing rescue dogs from the county’s high-volume, open-intake animal shelter with individuals charged with felonies. 

It works in coordination with the district attorney’s office.

The goal is for the men to develop the tools they need to overcome triggers and traumas that led them to criminal behavior while the dogs learn the skills they need to succeed in their forever homes. 

The men, often facing lengthy prison sentences, have their cases closed at the end of the yearlong program. 

Quantavious, who is identified by his first name only to protect his privacy, says he was facing about five years behind bars when a social worker for the public defender’s office told him about the program. 

“I will definitely be staying out of jail,” he said after the celebration. “I’ve learned a lot more about myself. And I just want to move forward in life, graduate college, graduate the program completely, and I want to train dogs now on the side.”

Canine CellMates executive director Susan Jacobs-Meadows hugs Quantavious, who graduated from the first phase of the nonprofit’s Beyond the Bars program on Thursday, May 30, 2024. (Chamian Cruz/WABE)

Quantavious had previously spent a year at the problem-plagued Fulton County Jail on Rice Street. One of the 10 people who died while in custody at the jail last year was a former participant in the program. 

Quantavious said he had issues there, too. 

“It was the worst experience of my life,” he said. “I messed up my finger in there, so I’m involved in a lawsuit right now. It’s pending. I’m waiting on that to be taken care of. I was stabbed in there for no reason at all. Robbed. The list goes on. It’s a terrible place.”

In Georgia, calls to pass criminal justice reforms to reduce the number of people who are incarcerated have stalled or been met with tough-on-crime policies.

Few programs are left in the state like those run by Canine CellMates.

Its director, Susan Jacobs-Meadows, says their focus is on “the repeat felony offender,” because society by and large has given up on them, and despite the program’s 40% attrition rate, she thinks it’s a worthy investment.

“There can be great outcomes when you provide the opportunity for people to learn new things that allow them to change their perceptions, make better decisions and forge a different path for themselves,” Jacobs-Meadows said.

Earlier this year, the Fulton County Sheriff’s Office ended the in-custody version of the Canine CellMates program due to the jail’s overcrowding issues. More than 400 men had participated in that program in the past decade and 165 dogs. 

Gwinnett County also suspended a similar program during a “massive reconstruction” to make room for a growing number of inmates inside the county jail in need of mental and physical health care.

As for the pups, Paprika went home with her new family in South Carolina immediately after graduation.

Curry, Clove and Mint are still waiting for their second chance.