Program's cell-ing point helps both man & beast

Dog trainer Nicole Larocco works with inmates in the Philadelphia prison system's New Leash on Life USA program.
Dog trainer Nicole Larocco works with inmates in the Philadelphia prison system's New Leash on Life USA program. (ALEJANDRO A. ALVAREZ / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: August 26, 2011

ON A grassy patch of lawn at the Philadelphia Prison System last Friday, four shelter dogs ran around and played, after some training by their new inmate companions.

Paris Hilton, a black-and-brown cattle-dog mix, romped around on top of the three male dogs, chasing them.

"She's going to run the show," said trainer Nicole Larocco, who works with the nonprofit group New Leash on Life USA.

Paris is "not aggressive," but "likes to be bossy," said Ryan Berrian, 23, one of Paris' two inmate buddies, as they and others watched Paris, Johnny Cash, Mike Tyson and Elvis frolic on the grass of the prison complex, off State Road in Holmesburg.

New Leash on Life USA, created by CEO Marian Marchese, an animal-lover from Penn Valley, aims to make shelter dogs at risk of being euthanized more adoptable by pairing them with inmates who will train and groom them. It also seeks to help the inmates gain skills for the future.

The first four dogs were brought this month to a building in the prison system's Alternative and Special Detention facility, which houses minimum- and community-custody inmates. Karen Bryant, the facility's warden, said that the eight inmates in the program were "especially selected" for their good behavior.

Prison spokeswoman Shawn Hawes added that the inmates were screened to make sure that they had no history of sexual abuse or abuse against animals.

Larocco renamed the dogs after celebrities who had either been in jail or performed in a jail. The dogs come from the Animal Care and Control Team shelter, on Hunting Park Avenue, Marchese said, and each will live 24/7 with two inmates in a cell for 11 weeks. Marchese already has people who plan to adopt these dogs, but she hopes to expand the program following this pilot run.

Robert Oliver, 21, one of the inmates caring for Johnny Cash, a black Lab, said that on the first night, when Cash was supposed to sleep a few hours in the early evening, the 8-month-old pup got anxious. "When he was in the cage by himself, he was crying," said Oliver.

So, Oliver let Cash out and the pup settled on the cell floor. Oliver said that he got down on the floor, too, and put his arm around Cash and rested his head on the dog's back for about an hour and a half.

Prison Commissioner Louis Giorla has been a big supporter of the program. Marchese also praised Lt. David Raab and Deputy Warden Norman Williams, of the ASD facility, for working during the past two years to help get the program started.

Marchese, 58, came up with the idea for New Leash a few years ago. She was volunteering with the city shelter and "saw all these great dogs" and "wanted to do something to save" more of them.

She saw an Animal Planet show, "Cell Dogs," which featured prisons in the country where inmates were paired with shelter dogs to train them. She found no program here, so she started one.

Her nonprofit also will offer scholarships to inmates in the program to pay for animal-grooming or -training courses after they are released.

Oliver said that he wants to continue working with animals after he gets out, taking courses toward becoming a veterinarian or another job in animal care.

Brad Veney, an inmate paired with Elvis, a pit bull, also hopes to use his new skills in the future. He has a commercial and residential cleaning business, but would like to expand it to include dog-sitting services.

"When you go away for the weekend, I will clean your house and care for your dog," he said.


For more information, visit www.newleashonlife-usa.org.

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