Prisoners get a new leash on life

By Emily Craft

When Noberto “Rob” Rosa was 9 years old, he fell into a life of crime and addiction. Eventually, he served 12 years in the State Penitentiary at Graterford.

“To be totally honest, it felt like we [prisoners] were creatures of habit,” Rosa said.

Today, Rosa is the associate vice president of New Leash on Life.

New Leash on Life is a new generation non-profit prison dog-training program that saves the lives of shelter dogs at-risk of euthanasia and gives incarcerated inmates a chance for redemption.

This program allows inmates to work with dogs who were once discarded by their owners. They work with dogs on training, people skills, and socialization skills and to help them become more adoptable to find a great home.

“Too often society turns their back on individuals and animals who seem impossible to change and are viewed as ‘not my problem,’ Rosa said. “No one-human or canine deserves to be forever judged by their worst day.”

Participants in New Leash on Life are assigned a shelter dog to live with them 24/7 in their cells, as if it was their own personal pet. They work with the dogs one-on-one to build a bond. The inmates attend classes everyday, learning basic animal care as well as life skills or job readiness classes.

The program builds self-esteem and a sense of accomplishment for those who have never started and finished anything before, according to their website.

The program also helps inmates give back to society, learn a sense of responsibility and feel unconditional love between human and canine, advocates say.

James Alston, a former New Leash on life volunteer, started with the program in 2014. After he finished the program, he was eligible for a 90-day internship with Providence Animal Center, formerly the Delco SPCA, an animal welfare organization, and went on to take a part-time job with them.

When inmates agree to the program, they are able to receive parole sooner for doing a good deed.

“It was a program that I felt was beneficial plus you would get released earlier from prison.” Alston said.

While Alston was incarcerated, he was assigned a Pit Bull named Marlon Brando. He worked with him for three months and helped him pass his Canine Good Citizen (CGC) test, which is an American Kennel Club program that promotes responsible dog ownership and encourages the training of well-mannered dogs.

Pit bulls and other breeds of dogs are often viewed as disposable and have a bad reputation in the media. Passing the CGC test ensures potential dog owners they have a well-trained dog, experts say.

According to New Leash on Life supporters, bully breeds and inmates are similar to one another, as both are misunderstood in the world and both need love and respect like everyone else, supporters say.

“I helped him pass his CGC test and he became a therapy dog,” Alston said.

Alston has since moved on after working for the center for a year and has a job doing plumbing and home renovations.

Because the New Leash program provides weekly sessions with professional dog-trainers, behaviorists and veterinary technicians, it prepares them for employability and internship opportunities for inmates in the animal care field according to the New Leash on Life website.

Cleveland Lewis, a former New Leash on Life volunteer, went through the program and accepted the internship with Providence Animal Center. He still works for the center as a kennel attendant and doing maintenance work.

“I helped the dogs pass their training tests and it felt good,” Lewis said.

Supporters say this is a way people who have done wrong, can do right for themselves, the community and the homeless dogs who need it most.

“Through this program, people were able to receive what everyone who makes a mistake in life seeks: forgiveness,” Rosa said. “It started with a dog, a dog who accepted who they are and did not judge them by their prison uniform.”

Contact Emily Craft at communitarian@mail.dccc.edu

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