Philadelphia Inquirer, Graduation ScrambleMay 10, 2013
This is part 5 of the six-part Philadelphia Inquirer series on New Leash on Life USA.
Dogs are on the fast track to new, loving homes.
By Melissa Dribben, Inquirer Staff Writer
Posted: May 10, 2013
The series so far: New Leash on Life has been working with 12 inmates since late October, teaching them to train six dogs, rescued from shelters. The men have almost completed their life-skills courses, preparing for employment after their release. Nearly all the inmates and their dogs have developed strong emotional bonds, but some of the men have failed to change their way of thinking. On Christmas Eve, Ike and Mike got into a serious fight. After weeks of preparation, the dogs are about to take the AKC Canine Good Citizen Test.
The hall was noisier than usual – inmates shuffling past, steel doors grinding, announcements crackling over loudspeakers. The commotion ratcheted up the already high anxiety levels for the New Leash men and their dogs.
They had spent the month training for this day, when a judge from the American Kennel Club would give the dogs the Canine Good Citizen Test.
Nicole LaRocco, the dog trainer, arrived early to offer the men last-minute advice. She walked into Mod 3 to find Mike and Hershey playing – pouncing, nipping ears, mouthing necks.
Joseph Davis rushed forward in a paternal panic. “Watch out for his stitches!” he cried, pulling the dogs apart.
Davis, a gruff, hardworking inmate, had grown close to Mike, the tan pit bull he had transformed from a hellion into a star. Mike was badly hurt in a fight with his nemesis, Ike, and the pink seams on his neck were still tender. Davis and his cellmate Gabriel Seda had been religiously applying Neosporin to the cuts.
For a week after returning from the hospital, Mike had been subdued. Now he was nearly back to normal. Every morning, as soon as the cell door slid open, he trotted down Block B, like the host of the manor, greeting the inmates.
“Hey, monkey face,” LaRocco said, giving Mike a nuzzle as he lunged for the orange she had brought for lunch. Snatching it away, she laughed, “It’s not a ball!” Mike cocked his head and with his soulful golden eyes, flashed her a shameless aw-c’mon look.
“Yeah,” LaRocco said. “Not happening.”
At 11 a.m., the AKC representative, Louis Mande, arrived. A criminal lawyer who took up dog training after retirement, Mande had judged the New Leash dogs in the four previous sessions. Relaxed and amiable, he tried to put the men at ease, chatting them up and assuring them that they would do just fine.
“Let’s do this!” he said, picking up his clipboard. “Who’s first?”
“We are,” said Davis.
None of the other prisoners even remotely considered challenging him for the honor. Davis and Mike always jumped to the head of the class.
“Nice to meet you, Joseph. Are you ready? We’re going to start with a meet and greet,” Mande said, then noticing that every muscle in Davis’ body was tensed, added: “Everything OK? Have a nice Christmas?”
Davis, his attention fixed on Mike, didn’t hear the question.
“OK, Mikey,” Davis said. “Ready?”
They got off to a rocky start. Mike sat on command, but when the judge leaned over to examine the dog’s mouth, Mike jumped up to lick his face.
“No! Mike!” Davis said sharply.
“It’s OK,” Mande said. “Sit, Mike. Down.”
The dog obeyed but struggled to stay focused. During the loose-leash walk, he dived for a garbage bag of kitchen scraps that had been left in the hall.
“He’s a little hardheaded this morning,” Davis apologized.
Mande told him not to worry and that the situation was challenging for everyone. “Dogs pick up on human behavior,” he said. “If you’re stressed, they’re stressed. But if he can do this here, he can do it anywhere.”
For the final exercise, Mike had to stay put while Davis walked away. It was one of the dog’s signature acts and normally Davis was so confident, he strutted off like a peacock.
Today, though, he looked back over his shoulder, checking.
Mike lifted his hips a fraction as if he were about to bolt, barely restraining himself.
“Perfect!” Mande declared. “Good! This was perfect! Wow!” He gave Davis a congratulatory thump on the shoulder. “You passed!”
Davis looked stunned.
“We passed?” he said, massaging the good side of Mike’s neck. “That’s my boy!”
Ike was up next.
The 80-pound copper mastiff mix charged into the prison hallway panting and pulling so hard on his leash that he was practically garroted by the collar. When his inmate, Kenneth Rivera, resisted, the dog’s front paws scrabbled on the linoleum.
Like everyone meeting Ike for the first time, the AKC judge was cautious. The dog’s big head, steam-shovel jaws, and muscular body were intimidating. Ike flipped onto his back so Rivera could give him a belly rub. Mande laughed, “Yeah, he’s vicious.”
Ike had come a long way. A month earlier, he had failed every exercise in the test. Embarrassed by his dog’s dismal performance, Rivera started working with him in earnest. During the last few lessons, Ike had made so much progress, LaRocco could hardly believe he was the same dog.
Ike’s success, in turn, had changed Rivera. The soft-spoken former drug dealer, who used to berate himself daily, seemed more confident.
“Watch, Ike. Watch!” he commanded. The dog snapped to attention like a boot-camp recruit, turned his face to Rivera, and lifted his cauliflower nub ears, poised for action.
During the meet and greet, when the dogs were supposed to sit quietly and watch their inmate shake hands with Mande, Ike sniffed the judge’s backside.
“Lou!” LaRocco joked. “Do you have your bacon underpants on today?”
Rivera, too worried to laugh, tugged Ike’s leash.
“It’s OK for him to pay attention to me,” Mande said. “I just don’t want him to jump.”
Ike’s performance would be the best of the day. The glory belonged to Rivera.
From the start, his cellmate James Barkley, one of the elders of the New Leash group, had invested more talk than action in the training. In the final weeks, Barkley tried harder to work with Ike, but it was not enough to make up for lost time.
The day of the test, Barkley stayed out of sight.
New Leash had arranged for portraits to be taken of the inmates and their dogs after the test. When Barkley was summoned by the photographer, he strode into the hall and took a grand mock bow.
“Thank you, sir,” he said, shaking Mande’s hand. “Thank you so much.”
While all the dogs were more jittery than usual, Peanut Chew was at the greatest disadvantage. The white pit bull, who had been kept in a basement for a year, was in pain.
Two weeks earlier, he had been badly bitten during a fight with Mike. Now the wounds were infected. The dog had just returned from the hospital the morning of the test with a plastic cone around his neck to keep him from licking the drains in his leg.
His inmate, Shawn Paige, who had such a chaotic childhood that he could not draw a timeline of his 23 years, mumbled to the dog to calm down.
Given Peanut Chew’s obvious discomfort, the judge gave them some latitude and, although it required a half-dozen do-overs, Paige was able to lead the dog successfully through all the exercises.
“That was impressive,” Mande said. “Considering what you had to deal with.”
Paige grinned. This time, broadly.
It was nearly 1 p.m. when the last dog finished the test.
Mande gathered the inmates. “Congratulations!” he said.
They were as shocked as they were relieved.
Everyone had passed.
The prison gym echoed with the electrical buzz of microphones and excited voices. Tables on three sides were laden with sodas, chips, and trays of fat sandwiches. Up front, 12 chairs waited for the graduates.
One of the first guests to arrive was Mark Romanowski, a fourth-year medical student at Thomas Jefferson University. The young man had learned about the graduation only two days before when he received an e-mail from a stranger.
It was from Roberto Rosa, New Leash’s director of operations, who had tracked Romanowski down with help from the Hunting Park shelter.
“My reason for contacting you is that we rescued a dog that was at risk for euthanasia and placed him in one of our classes,” Rosa wrote. “He is the star of the class and is actually going to be adopted and continue training to be a full service dog.”
Over the summer, he had fostered a tan pit bull with golden eyes and a white-tipped tail from the shelter. He named him Beau and loved the dog, but in October, after he got into a fight in a park over a toy, Romanowski found a couple to adopt him. They kept Beau one night before returning him to the shelter, saying he was “hyperactive.”
The shelter staff had begged Romanowski to rescue the dog again. Unable to take on the responsibility, he had said no and hung up the phone crying, knowing that the dog would probably be put down.
“Not a week went by when I didn’t think of him,” Romanowski said.
Staring in disbelief at Rosa’s e-mail, the young man called his best friend.
“He’s alive!” Romanowski shouted.
“Who’s alive?” his friend said.
“Dude,” his friend replied. “That’s seriously a miracle.”
Rosa invited the friends to graduation to see how well Mike had done, and to meet the prisoners who helped save his life. They sat in the fourth row, keeping an eye on the door, waiting for the tan pit bull with the golden eyes to make his entrance.
In Mod 3, the inmates were slipping into the orange jumpsuits required when they go outside the fenced perimeter.
Single file, the men led their dogs out of the same gates they had come in through three months earlier. A cold wind sliced across the prison compound as they made the five-minute walk from their cell block to the gym.
Several yards away, a young redhead in a black suit watched the scene intently. When the graduation ended, Mike would be going home with her.
Michelle Rambo, 27, a case manager at the Department of Public Welfare, suffered from post traumatic stress disorder. That morning, Rambo tried on six outfits before choosing the tailored suit and black pumps. She put in half a day at work, left for the prison, then waited by the security guard house, trying to build up her courage.
“I’m excited,” she said. “And ready to hurl.”
Beaten and neglected as a child, Rambo had managed to pull her life together, but the residual damage left her subject to paralyzing panic attacks.
The smallest disruption, she said, could snip the cords that tethered her to her surroundings. Crowds made her nervous. She sometimes had to fight the urge to walk into traffic. And she frequently bolted awake in the middle of the night, terrified.
Rambo had heard that service dogs were aiding veterans with PTSD. After searching the Web, she stumbled across Main Line Deputy Dog, a nonprofit that helps the disabled to find and train their own service animals.
Before formalizing the adoption, the organization arranged for Rambo to meet Mike in Pennypack Park. It was an unseasonably warm winter day and although the ground was damp, she sat in the grass to play with him.
“I like him a lot,” Rambo said, as he scrambled into her lap, licking her ears and bowling her over onto her back. Looking up, she saw a rainbow.
“It’s an omen,” said Rambo. “I’m trying not to cry. We’ve both come from not the best backgrounds. We both need someone we can trust.”
At the graduation, she respected Mike’s final moments with his inmates.
“I feel bad taking him away from you,” she told Seda.
“It’s OK,” he said. “We’re prepared for this.”
All but one of the dogs had been adopted.
Rolo, the beagle mix, and Hershey, the lanky hound from the South, were claimed by young couples. One lived in the Art Museum area, the other in King of Prussia.
Goober, the Pharaoh hound mix with batlike ears, would be companion to a stroke victim. Ike, initially courted by an art student in Manayunk, was headed for Bucks County with a family who had two little boys and a large fenced yard.
But Peanut Chew’s adopters had withdrawn their application, so until a suitable owner was found, he would be going into foster care.
More than 75 guests attended graduation. Mande, the AKC evaluator, was there, so were the job-skills teacher and all the adopting families who would be taking the dogs home after the ceremony.
In past sessions, few family members attended. But this time, more than half the prisoners looked out into the audience and saw relatives waving back.
No one was there for Shawn Paige. But Joseph Davis’ fiancee and sister had come. So did Jamal Thompson’s sister and Donte Waters’ mother.
Of all the men from Mod 3, Ruben Perez seemed the least apt to draw a cheering section. The 54-year-old inmate had maintained nearly monastic silence throughout the program and seemed unlikely to have a strong emotional connection to anyone on the outside.
But when a tall, middle-aged woman entered, pushing a man in a wheelchair, Perez nearly broke into a run to meet her. He threw his heavily tattooed arms around her and swept her into a passionate kiss before a corrections officer ran over to break it up.
As the ceremony began, a nattily dressed man with a graying beard slipped into the audience. The inmates turned to watch. He was Byron Cotter, director of alternative sentencing for the Philadelphia Defender Association.
Cotter would be filing petitions for most of the inmates to receive early parole, based largely on their work in New Leash. He had already advocated successfully for Thompson’s release and hoped that others, including Davis, Paige, Rivera, and Seda, might be out by February.
Cotter, a defense attorney for 40 years, said the New Leash program has great potential.
“With a little help, some of these guys can do well,” he said. Given the harm the inmates have done, it is logical to want to write them off. But it’s important to remember, he said, that most were not born broken.
“Their early lives were horrendous. It was just so difficult to succeed,” he said. “It’s true that most people who come from tough beginnings don’t grow up to become criminals. Some people are able to do well in spite of it. But not all.”
And then, he said, there’s the bottom line to consider. “Early parole saves the city at least $14 million a year.”
The officials gave speeches (punctuated by Rolo’s barking). Commissioner Louis Giorla praised the prison staff and the New Leash program. Warden Karen Bryant spoke of the importance of educating inmates and giving them marketable skills.
Rosa, who had spent 12 years in Graterford before turning himself around, gave the keynote. He thanked Bryant, saying, “She is one of the most dedicated wardens I have ever met, and trust me, I’ve met many.”
Sue Cosby, the director of the Hunting Park shelter, which has hired several graduates of the New Leash program, said: “We believe kindness is contagious.”
The inmates had been armed heavily with dog treats to keep their charges well-behaved. Even so, Paige had to take Peanut Chew outside to calm him.
One by one, the graduates were called up to receive their certificates, shake hands with Giorla and pose with their dogs for photographs.
The cellmates had negotiated which of them would walk with their dog.
Barkley led Ike on a short leash. When it was Davis’ turn, Mike buried his nose in the hydrangeas beside the podium.
For the closing act, four of the inmates performed a choreographed rap with a few breakout solos.
Paige, shedding his usual cloak of shyness, rhymed about the power of love. Donte Waters, a handsome 23-year-old still invested in his street cool, complained about the system’s unfairness. Thompson hammed it up in the spotlight, and Elliott Glover, the former banker, carried the finale in a tenor sweet and smooth as caramel.
Too many left turns,
I just want to turn right.
I just want my life back.
A grief counselor from the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School had helped prepare the inmates for the pain of saying goodbye. Determined not to cry in public, many of the men had stayed up the night before with the dogs, privately grieving in their cells.
After the ceremony, Davis put Mike through his paces for TV cameras. Mike backed up, offered his paw, and tapped a Staples Easy Button that had been practiced on so often, the battery had died.
“Mike was like family,” said Seda. “We’re really going to miss him.”
Davis searched through the crowd for the woman with the red hair, the dog’s new owner.
“Here,” he said bluntly, and handed Rambo the leash. “He twitches when he sleeps. Just make sure you don’t let him be around a dominant dog.”
Then he left to get a sandwich.
As the room started to empty, though, Davis went to see Mike one more time. He found Rambo trying – and failing – to persuade Mike to give up a plastic water bottle he was carrying in his mouth.
“If it’s possible,” Davis asked, “maybe you can go on the New Leash on Life website and let me know how he’s doing.”
“Of course,” she said.
Davis patted Mike’s head. “You’ll have no problem training him at all.”
He paused for an awkward second.
“OK,” he said finally, then walked away, back to his family.