Philadelphia Inquirer, Frustration Piles Up

May 7, 2013

-

This is part 2 of the six-part Philadelphia Inquirer series on New Leash on Life USA.

Click here to read part 1.

The men are held accountable for their charges.

By Melissa Dribben, Inquirer Staff Writer

Posted: May 07, 2013

The series so far: Twelve inmates in Philadelphia detention unit Mod 3 met the six dogs they will live with and train for three months. The dogs, most of them pit bulls, were rescued from area shelters. The men, ranging from a 19-year-old former football star to two 54-year-old career criminals, were chosen for the program because they seemed ready to turn their lives around.

Second of six parts.

Ike’s face was scratched. A three-inch bloody gash cut across Mike’s neck. And Heath was gone.

The first 10 days had not gone smoothly.

The 8-by-10 cells, furnished with a seatless stainless steel toilet, small sink, plastic table, and bunk beds, left little room for the dog kennels. And although the inmates, relieved of the boredom of regular prison life, initially welcomed their new responsibilities, the schedule was rigorous and the work frustrating.

It was not long before mistakes were made.

At 7:15 a.m., the men walked the dogs in the yard, fed them, and practiced training for 30 minutes. After lunch, two more training practices, a study period, and homework. At 4:45 p.m. a “potty break,” an hour of play, and more training. The dogs went out one last time at 10:30.

Most of the men quickly grew fond of their new charges, none more than Joseph Davis, the 40-year-old inmate whose mother had stopped celebrating his birthday. Davis and Mike, the tan pit bull, already had formed a bond.

From the first night, instead of putting Mike in his crate, Davis folded blankets and a pillow under his bed to make a soft nest for the dog.

The men attended classes daily – life-skills seminars, dog training, and canine health. Discussions about the dogs sometimes led the inmates to reflect on themselves, and the insights could be uncomfortable.

One presentation on dog body language cut really close.

The inmates had gathered in the small prison library. Arrows of light shot in through four long, narrow windows. There was a blackboard on one side. Random paperbacks lined bookcases on the other.

Nicole LaRocco, the dog trainer, explained that animals with a sweet disposition can be provoked to attack out of self-defense or fear.

“How many of you are the fight type?” she asked.

Only one man raised his hand. Another said, “I used to be.”

“I’m a very peaceful person myself,” LaRocco said. “But if you back me into a corner, I will fight back.”

“As you should!” said Corey Maxey, the 19-year-old former football player.

“You have to understand,” LaRocco continued, “that if a dog wants to bite you, he will bite you.”

Just as most inmates are not sociopathic killers, most dogs, she said, are not vicious.

“Dominance and submissiveness are situational,” she said, then asked, “Who in this situation is dominant?”

Before they responded, she said: “Me!”

They laughed.

A session on responsible breeding and animal shelters also unsettled some of the men.

Laura Muller, the vet tech, explained that most dogs in the Hunting Park shelter have only a few days to be adopted. Brindles and pure breeds get scooped up. Others, though, don’t have much of a chance.

She showed them a photograph of a black Lab mix and asked, “Have you ever heard of big black dog syndrome?”

Silence.

“Big black dogs,” Muller said. “People are afraid of them. They are always the last to get adopted.”

Several men sniffed. Silence again.

No excuses

The men had been instructed to keep their dogs six feet apart at all times. It had been a lack of self-discipline and respect for rules, however, that landed them in jail.

If years behind bars had not taught them the power of consequences, their dogs would. What made New Leash different from other rehabilitation programs was that the animals – dependent and innocent – held the men accountable.

Promises and excuses meant nothing.

A week into the program, Mike and Ike mauled each other.

During the selection process at the Hunting Park shelter, the two dogs had played well. No one knew that Mike had a history of aggression over toys.

Roberto Rosa, director of operations for New Leash, had heard that James Barkley and his cell mate, Kenneth Rivera, were at fault, but he wanted to let them speak for themselves.

“The incident between Ike and Mike,” he said. “What happened?”

The dogs, they said, were tied up beside one another with a toy nearby.

“It was a mental lapse. We didn’t think their heads would be so close together,” said Barkley, at 54, one of the oldest inmates in the group. “They locked onto each other.”

“I did the wrong thing,” Rivera said, talking into his chest. Rivera, 20, had the shortest criminal history in the group. A drug dealer, he looked in the mirror every morning and called himself an epithet.

“I grabbed Ike by the head,” he told Rosa. “I got shook up. I ain’t gonna lie.”

Rosa lectured them. His disappointment stung. “The dogs should not be tied up. You’re new to them. They’re new to you. Just follow instructions.”

Seizing the teachable moment, he summoned the other inmates.

Donte Waters, a handsome, street-cool 23-year-old whose dog, Goober, was not involved in the fight had one question.

“I didn’t see any dogs playing. Where did you get your information?”

“It’s not about us being cops,” said Rosa. “It’s about doing what’s right.”

No one on the staff understood the men better than Rosa, who had spent 12 years in Graterford.

Unlike most criminals he knew, Rosa grew up in a stable home. Even so, he had been seduced by the streets at 11 and, by 15, was robbing drug dealers in the Badlands to support a two-bag-a-day heroin habit.

Years of violence have left his body broken and arthritic. A sooty scar marks one wrist where he shot himself during a thwarted murder attempt. Other wounds are less visible. The broken jaw. The cloudy recesses of his brain that he is certain was damaged by multiple overdoses, including one when he collapsed in the snow outside his grandmother’s house in North Philadelphia.

Miraculously, a passing ambulance found him.

“I like to think, for whatever reason, I was saved to do what I’m doing today,” Rosa said. “To deliver the message. It is possible to change. You just can’t be afraid of change.”

When inmates say they don’t know why they keep getting into trouble, Rosa smiles grimly.

“They like the life. Living on the edge . . . thinking, ‘Can I get away with this?’ People are afraid of you. But you confuse fear with respect.”

He remembers the rush with clarity, and shame.

“That life was so appealing to me. I lied to everyone around me, including my parents. I did dirt to my own brother. I tried to rob him at gunpoint in front of his kids.”

During one stint in a youth study center, he recalled sitting in the back of a classroom, muttering “This is crap” at everything the instructor said.

“How old are you?” the instructor asked.

“Sixteen,” answered Rosa.

“I guarantee you,” the instructor said, “that by the time you’re 18, you’ll be on a bus going to Graterford.”

Two years later, at 18, Rosa was on that bus.

At his sentencing, the judge told him he was incorrigible. He was escorted away in handcuffs. Looking over his shoulder, he saw his mother crying. The barbed memory still brings him to tears.

He credits prison programs, social workers, and drug and alcohol counselors for salvaging his life. And while he understands why people think that investing in criminals is a waste, he uses himself as an example of how society can benefit.

“Just saving me, that’s stopping a big chunk of crime. So if I can save one, that’s one less guy selling drugs to my daughter, one less guy hitting a grandmother over the head to steal her pocketbook.”

He sympathizes with the New Leash inmates.

“We teach the guys how to use positive reinforcement with the dogs. Well, I want the guys to get positive reinforcement, too. They aren’t in here because they are monsters. Everyone has made bad choices. Bad decisions.”

He sees other parallels.

“These men are strays . . . like those dogs in the shelter, cornered animals, snarling,” he said. “You know that dog barking is giving you a warning and he’s afraid. He’s thinking, ‘I gotta do what I gotta do.’ ”

Before taking the job with New Leash, Rosa worked for an animal shelter. “It was amazing how much it reminded me of what inmates go through,” he said. “Getting a number. Being fed. Coming out when someone wants you to get out of the cage.”

And yet, when he hears inmates compare themselves to their dogs, he reminds them of the most important difference: “Those dogs didn’t have a choice.”

Unrepentant

Bald and sinewy with a graying beard, James Barkley assigned himself the role of sage among the inmates.

Between prison sentences, he had worked as a licensed plumber and owned properties in the city that he rehabbed and sold. But in the 40 years since his first brush with the law, he had never completely shaken his addiction to the adrenaline high.

“I liked being that street man,” he said. “I liked the thrill of it, standing on the corner with a gun, watching if a cop would come. It wasn’t that I wasn’t raised right. My grandmother used to tell me that a smart person can act dumb. . . . I accepted that when you become a hustler, you’re either going to make money, go to jail, or die.”

A font of unrestrained bluster, Barkley described his self-esteem as “on the ceiling!” And although he said he missed his family, he described prison as “the life of Riley” and felt no need to apologize for anything he has done.

“I ask my God to forgive me, but I can’t say I feel bad about it. I had a ball.” His only regret: “I wish I’d been a better father.”

Barkley volunteered for the New Leash program thinking it would be “a get out of jail free card.” But after the first day, he was worried.

“If a dog isn’t responding after 12 weeks,” he told LaRocco, “I don’t want to feel like I failed.”

She assured him that with enough practice, almost any dog can be trained.

Barkley vowed to work hard, but it would not be long before LaRocco began to question why he had been allowed in the program. An unrepentant criminal with a rusted moral compass, he seemed a poor choice.

Perhaps, said Eugene Marshall, one of the prison social workers who chooses the inmates for New Leash.

“But you never know what is in the mind or heart of an inmate,” Marshall said. “As long as they’re willing to try, you never know what might spark something.”

Young men under 25 tend to be reckless and cocky, hooked on immediate gratification as well as drugs. Older men may be calcified by time and trouble.

“The street life is hard. And it’s even harder when you’re older. They’re not the wolf anymore. They’re the sheep.”

Even if Barkley did not benefit from New Leash, Marshall said, he could help younger members of the group by serving as a kind of Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. An old head, back in prison for the umpteenth time, his message was clear: “You don’t want to be like me.”

Too aggressive for prison

Tuesdays and Fridays, LaRocco held dog-training classes in Mod 3’s main corridor. The fluorescent-lit hall served as the hub connecting four spokes of cell blocks and the day rooms equipped with televisions, card tables, and chessboards.

Each spoke was closed off by thick glass walls and steel doors. As the New Leash session progressed, inmates who were not in the program would stand at the windows watching the lessons – some with quiet fascination, others with envy, hooting and calling to the dogs, trying to distract them.

Of all the dogs, Heath, the moon-blue pit bull, was the most reactive. And day by day, he was becoming more aggressive. Concerned that a corrections officer might be bitten, the staff decided it couldn’t wait to see whether Heath would adapt. He was given back to Ruth McMahon, the board member whose son had fostered the dog.

Shawn Paige, the solemn 23-year-old who could not reconstruct a timeline of his life, had done his best with Heath and felt responsible for the dog’s failure.

“I thought if I just kenneled him up, he would be OK,” he said.

The New Leash staff was unaware, but Paige’s cell mate, Ruben Perez, was less tolerant and sometimes rough with Heath.

The inmates were given a new dog. Peanut Chew, an 18-month-old white pit bull with one blue eye and one brown, had translucent skin that flushed pink when he was agitated. And he was agitated easily. As a puppy, he had been sold off the back of a truck and kept in a basement for nearly a year.

Paige was accustomed to loss. He was taken from his neglectful mother at 5 years old and then from a foster family he loved. Showing no emotion, Paige said he understood why Heath had to go.

“We didn’t have him very long,” he said, rubbing his new dog’s neck. Peanut Chew tilted his head, trying to curl himself around Paige’s hand.

He and the dog would have to work hard to make up for lost training time. And Perez would not be much help.

Beginners run amok

During breaks in the training sessions, a frantic energy propelled the inmates and their dogs into the fresh air and open space of the yard. They zigzagged across the cracked basketball court and balding grass and ran laps along the perimeter’s high chain-link fences.

“Keep your dogs six feet apart, gentlemen,” the New Leash staff cautioned again and again.

Fifteen minutes later, the men, refreshed and their dogs panting, were ushered back inside, ready to resume their work.

Except for Goober, the bat-eared Pharaoh hound mix trained by volunteers in the Hunting Park shelter, the dogs knew nothing about how to behave.

Between prison terms, Davis raised and trained pit bulls in North Philadelphia. But he had no experience with the positive reinforcement technique that LaRocco used – rewarding dogs for good behavior by clicking a handheld noisemaker and giving them a treat.

Assertive and self-confident, Davis had asked LaRocco for a challenging pup. His wish was granted. Mike pinballed around the prison, investigating and inspecting.

“C’mon, Mikey,” Davis begged. “Pay attention, boy. Sit. Sit. Sit. Sit. Watch me! Sit!”

Mike blinked his luminous gold eyes, twisted around and leaped for the lunch cart rolling past, laden with heat-and-eat trays of breaded chicken patties.

“Don’t repeat the commands. Let him think about it,” LaRocco told Davis.

He had claimed the dominant role in the dog’s training, with the tacit if not wholehearted consent of his cell mate, Gabriel Seda. As the session progressed, LaRocco would encourage the pair to share the training more equally. For now, though, she did not want to interfere.

“Let’s try a Gentle Leader,” she said, reaching for a head collar made of nylon straps that allow the dog to be led by the nose rather than the neck. She tried to slip it over Mike’s head and behind his ears, but he thrashed his head violently and pawed it off.

“This will come,” LaRocco said. “Trust me.”

Davis looked doubtful.

LaRocco had expected Mike to be a problem. Ike’s obstinacy, however, was a surprise.

The copper mastiff mix with the formidable jaws had made a good first impression when LaRocco tested him. But as soon as his inmates tried to get him to walk on a leash, he flung himself to the floor.

Nothing LaRocco suggested worked.

“He’s a brat,” she said. “He knows he’s beautiful. He’s used to getting his way. But he’ll learn.”

Afterward, in the corner, Ike threw up.

“I’ll get it,” Barkley said, going to find a mop. “That’s my job now, ain’t it?”

LaRocco thanked him, and told the men to prepare to be cleaning up a lot of mess for a while.

“Your dogs have been through a lot,” LaRocco told the men. “They have been through surgery, a new environment, a changed diet,” she said. “Don’t push them. They all handle stress differently. We all handle stress differently.”

Peanut Chew had a particularly rough time. Soon after his arrival, he got so sick that Laura Muller, the vet tech, was summoned.

“Please,” Muller said. “Don’t let anyone feed your dogs.”

A few men protested that no one had given the dogs anything but kibble. Muller stopped them abruptly.

Peanut Chew had presented the evidence, she said. “And I’ve seen it.”

Trying to settle his stomach, the New Leash staff brought special food – boiled white rice and boneless, skinless chicken breast. Knowing the inmates would be tempted to eat it, though, LaRocco and Muller worked out a complicated arrangement with a corrections officer to dole out portions twice a day.

Within 48 hours, he would be feeling better.

The dog seemed destined to suffer, though. A few weeks later, he would be rushed to the hospital, a victim once again of human carelessness.

This time, it would not be the inmates’ fault.

Click here to read the next part in this series.

Click here to read the original article.


< Back to all press review