Philadelphia Inquirer, There’s New ResolveMay 11, 2013
This is part 6 of the six-part Philadelphia Inquirer series on New Leash on Life USA.
There’s new resolve
Paroled inmates try to avoid pitfalls.
By Melissa Dribben, Inquirer Staff Writer
Posted: May 11, 2013
The series so far: The inmates have graduated from the three-month New Leash course. They have completed life-skills training and taught their dogs how to behave well enough to become obedient pets in new adoptive homes. Most of the men are getting ready to start paid internships at area animal shelters.
Last of six parts.
Three days after he turned 22, Jamal Thompson left prison a relatively free man.
A former drug dealer whose years in juvenile detention had been a reprieve from his jagged life at home, Thompson had taken to New Leash on Life with hungry enthusiasm.
He was eligible for parole in December but chose to stay and finish the program. And because he had done so well, he was offered an internship with the city’s Hunting Park animal shelter.
At graduation, Thompson said goodbye to his skinny hound, Hershey, who went to live with a young couple in Fairmount. The next morning, he traded in his prison scrubs for black jeans and a gray hoodie, and, carrying nothing but a folder of documents, bid farewell to Mod 3.
On the way out, Terrell Wood, a corrections officer whose 18-year-old son was murdered a year ago, pulled Thompson aside. He wanted to offer some last words of advice.
“Stay away from women who just sit in front of the TV and send you out to get them chicken wings,” he told Thompson.
Wood watched as the door opened and three guards escorted Thompson beyond the gates.
“You really can’t believe you’re free,” Thompson said, crossing State Road. Then he dashed off to buy a new pair of sneakers before heading home to South Philadelphia.
He had been away for eight months, but when he walked in, his mother and grandmother stayed seated on the couch.
They had not prepared much for his homecoming. No dinner was planned. Explaining the cool reception, he said: “I guess I’ve come home to them a lot.”
Upstairs, he found his bedroom door locked. His sister helped him find the key. The room was as bare as his prison cell, except for a new wide-screen TV.
Thompson dug through a box, pulled out a new white polo shirt and ironed it meticulously on his bed. He slipped it over his head, put on the new sneakers, then sat with his hands on his knees for a long while, still and silent.
He had three days to wait before starting an internship, and a new life.
Into the possible
Twelve criminals. Six dogs. Three months.
They were promising numbers.
But in any life, so many other variables factor in, that no one ever counted on a perfect result.
For some of the inmates, their dog’s love, the instructors’ attention, and their own hard work had infused enough therapeutic karma to redirect their lives. For others, the salvage mission came either too soon or too late.
When she designed the New Leash program, founder Marian Marchese knew that to be successful, the inmates would need continued assistance after their release.
So for at least three months after they left Mod 3, any graduate who wanted help could turn to Kim Still, the reentry coordinator.
A recovering addict and former inmate herself, Still offered emotional support and practical advice. Did they want to earn a G.E.D.? Go to college? Find a permanent job? Get into rehab? She knew whom to contact and what to do.
Of the nine graduates who had been offered paid internships at animal shelters, Still had particularly high hopes for Thompson, who had so impressed his supervisors during the first two weeks working at the Hunting Park shelter that they hired him full time.
At work one day in mid-February, after cleaning out kennels, Thompson took a breather. Looking healthy but considerably thinner, he said the transition from prison had been hard.
“The only thing that’s making it a little bit easier is I got a job,” he said.
Mindful of the warnings he had been given, he was resisting the urge to visit old friends from the street.
“I want to be honest with myself,” he said. But he lacked the self-discipline to show up for work on time and take only brief, authorized breaks during the day.
In April, he was fired. A month later, having learned from his mistakes, he was given another chance and hired at a different shelter.
Shawn Paige had trouble adapting to his freedom right away.
Removed from a neglectful home at age 5, he had bounced from foster families to juvenile programs. Now 23, he could not reconstruct a timeline of where he had lived.
At the start of the New Leash program, Paige was withdrawn and sullen. But he proved to be an able dog trainer. As his dog, a nervous white pit bill named Peanut Chew, progressed, Paige opened up, smiling and talking more easily.
After prison, he moved into a room in a transitional housing complex and, for the first time in years, his future seemed hopeful.
Then he stumbled.
He arrived late for his first day at his internship. Then again, on his second.
The shelter fired him.
He began drinking heavily and several weeks later, when he was forced to give up his room, he moved in with a relative.
“We’re not giving up on him,” said Still.
“Not everyone is ready to work,” she said. “It’s not a perfect world.”
No matter how well – or poorly – an inmate seems to have done in the program, outcomes are hard to predict, said Byron Cotter, of the Defender Association of Philadelphia, which represents most of the New Leash inmates.
“We don’t know what challenges they will face after they are released and what those challenges will do to their psyche,” Cotter said.
In late March, Paige stopped communicating with Still. On April 16, he was arrested and charged with burglary and illegal gun possession.
Not free yet
On a soggy Wednesday night in early spring, Still’s support group met in a classroom at a vocational school in Northeast Philadelphia.
Three New Leash graduates – Dominic Hayes, Kenneth Rivera, and Donte Waters – showed up.
They kept their jackets on. The room was much larger and colder than the tiny prison library where they had attended life-skills classes. Hayes and Rivera took seats next to each other on one side. On the other, Waters sat alone.
Their voices echoed in the huge, empty space, and the scene could not have been more apt. For after living in confined spaces under tight rules so long, the men felt overwhelmed by the relative vastness of their freedom and the responsibilities that came with it.
In prison, Hayes, a 39-year-old drug dealer, spoke rarely and, honoring the “trust no one” code of the street, shared nothing about his personal life. The name Dominic Hayes was one of six aliases.
During his internship at the shelter, the truth came out. He was really Emerson Chase, who despite an extensive record for drug dealing, had managed to sustain a long, stable marriage.
He knew that when he was in prison, the New Leash staff interpreted his silence as lack of interest.
“I was listening,” he said with a wink.
Chase was a regular at Still’s weekly meetings and, that night, she was especially proud of him.
“Do you have something to tell us, Emerson?” she asked slyly, knowing that a few hours earlier, the shelter had offered him a full-time job.
Suppressing a smile, he nodded. “I got hired.”
“Yes you did!” Still raised her arms triumphantly. “Only two weeks into your internship!”
She crossed the room to hug him, then turned to Rivera.
“And how about you, Kenny?”
He looked up, shyly. “Well, I went for that G.E.D. assessment test.”
“That’s what I’m talking about!” Still said, and hugged him, too.
Across the room, Waters slumped further in his chair, his pants slung below his butt to reveal thermal long johns.
“I need a job,” he said. “That’s the one thing I really, really, really need. I need something to do that will pay me.”
“You have some proving to do,” Still told him, but seeing his wounded expression, walked over.
“You want a hug too? Here, Boo.” He pouted in her motherly embrace.
Head-turning handsome, with sable eyes and a cat’s-purr voice, the 23-year-old drug dealer had charmed his way into quite a few beds if not hearts.
Now, saddled with two children and a heavy load of “baby mama drama,” he was desperate for work, yet unwilling or unable to present himself as an appealing job candidate.
In a practice job interview, Still asked: “What interests you about this job?”
“The benefits,” he said.
“What am I going to do with you?” Still said, exasperated.
None of the animal shelters had offered him an internship. And he had recently failed to show up to a meeting with an employment and training agency.
He told Still he was enjoying his freedom.
“I don’t know nothing ’bout no interviews,” he said. “If it’s a friend, I’ll get the job.”
Still decided he needed a reality check.
“Your pretty-boy days are over,” she snapped. “You think you can charm your way through life? Well, let me tell you. You love your freedom? You ain’t free. You’re on parole. You got conditions.”
She took a seat at the front of the room. “I’m not threatening. Read the paper about ex-cons. They say we are no good. Including me. They say we’re going back to jail.”
“They’ll have to kill me before I go back to jail,” Waters said. “I’m not kidding.”
Wiping her forehead, Still stood up. “Everybody got problems. You heard about that hit-and-run in New Jersey? A bus killed a woman? That was my aunt. And my son got locked up Friday. But I’m still here for you. You’ve got to work around your drama.”
She gave him a hard look. “So what’s your issue? I don’t care.”
Petulant, he muttered: “But I do.”
Rivera had the shortest criminal record of anyone in the New Leash group and stepped back into society with the least baggage.
After his release from prison, the 20-year-old recovering addict went home to his grandmother and a welcome-back dinner of pork chops, rice, and salad.
He was reunited with his 10-year-old sister and his girlfriend, a nursing student, and immediately began working with the New Leash staff to finish his G.E.D.
Eventually, he hoped to go to college and study commercial art.
“I just gotta relax, live day by day,” he said. “I don’t want to jeopardize anything.”
At the Hunting Park shelter, Rivera was learning to give rabies shots and deworm dogs. It was harder, he said, to assist in euthanizing the ones with behavioral problems.
More than a month had passed since he said goodbye to Ike, the headstrong copper mastiff mix he had trained.
Early in the prison program, Rivera was lax. Embarrassed, though, by his dog’s disastrous first attempt at the canine good-citizen test, Rivera had rallied. For the remainder of the session, he worked so conscientiously that the trainers dubbed Ike “most improved.”
As much as Rivera missed the dog, he consoled himself that Ike was happy.
“He was an outside dog. He never wanted to go back inside,” Rivera said. “He always looked like he wanted to run away.”
How perfect, then, that Ike had been adopted by a Bucks County family with two young boys and a fenced yard with nearly an acre to roam freely.
Rivera didn’t know that Ike’s behavior changed radically after leaving Mod 3.
Two weeks after he moved in with the family, the children and their uncle were roughhousing in the yard. Ike, who had been growing increasingly protective of the boys, charged the uncle.
The parents, distraught, called New Leash and said they could no longer trust Ike. He was taken to the Philadelphia Pet Hotel and Villas.
(New Leash found another dog for the family, and several weeks later, they also fostered Peanut Chew.)
In the boarding facility, Ike was put into an airy kennel and visited regularly by trainers, who tried to work with him.
Ike lost weight, even though he was eating. His portions were doubled. Still, he grew thinner. By early February, emaciated and losing his fur, he was hardly recognizable.
The weekend before he was scheduled to be seen by a veterinarian, Ike attacked two men – first a kennel worker, then a trainer who works with abused dogs.
Marchese decided that Ike was too dangerous to handle.
On Monday, March 4, “he was euthanized humanely,” she said.
Marchese later consulted a veterinarian at the University of Pennsylvania Veterinary School, who had not examined Ike but speculated that, based on his sudden weight loss and personality changes, he might have had a brain tumor or some other serious illness.
“He was not the same dog who would roll over and ask for belly rubs,” Marchese said. “I think about him every day and wonder if I could have done more.”
Ike died the day before Rivera started his internship. So Roberto Rosa, New Leash’s director of operations, decided to give the former inmate some time to settle in before telling him about the dog he had trained and grown to love.
He waited a few days, then, along with a veterinary grief counselor, met Rivera at a Dunkin’ Donuts near the shelter.
“We have some unfortunate news,” Rosa said.
Rivera’s first thought was that Ike had bitten a child. Although he had never been aggressive with people, Ike had been in several vicious fights with Mike, one of the other dogs in the program.
Rivera could not believe it when Rosa told him that Ike had attacked three men.
“Are you sure no one was picking on him?”
“No,” Rosa said, explaining that Ike was probably ill and felt vulnerable.
Rivera reached into his pocket for his cellphone and looked at the photo he had chosen for the wallpaper – a close-up of Ike, grinning sloppily.
“If he was ill, he would have stayed suffering,” Rivera reasoned. “Ike. Rest in peace.”
Last one out
Joseph Davis was warned not to get his hopes up.
The last time Common Pleas Judge Susan Schulman put him on probation, he committed armed robbery and she sentenced him to three to six years in state prison.
Leniency for Davis was unlikely.
On March 1, his family turned out for his hearing.
The last time Davis saw his mother she told him she was no longer celebrating his birthday. She was willing, nonetheless, to let him live with her if the judge put him under house arrest. A churchgoing woman and mental-health worker, she never understood why her son became a criminal.
“It doesn’t make sense,” she said. Her daughter, also a mental-health worker, was raised the same way.
“Sometimes, I want to give it up and let him go. But I can’t,” she said. “I know he’s 40, but he’s still my child.”
So she had put on a dark suit and reported to court with her daughter, her niece, Davis’ fiancee, stepson, and several relatives by marriage.
There had been a mixup, and the prison had not brought Davis to court. From the high bench, Schulman greeted the family. Davis’ attorney, Byron Cotter, called Rosa as his first witness.
Davis, Rosa testified, had been an exemplary participant in the New Leash program. The dog he had trained, Mike, was now a service animal for a woman with post traumatic stress disorder. Since the tan pit bull became her companion, she was having fewer and less debilitating bouts of depression. Mike had learned to nudge her awake when she had night terrors.
Davis was the one who turned the dog around, Rosa said. “He put a lot of effort into the dog, but I also saw him put a lot into himself.”
The Delaware County SPCA had offered Davis an internship and was calling regularly to find out when he could start.
Bridgette Hill, Davis’ fiancee, testified next.
Hill, who works for SEPTA and the Horsham Clinic, had known Davis for seven years. Half that time, he was behind bars, including three years in state prison.
“I just feel that going upstate made a big change in him,” she said.
Then Cotter spoke.
“I usually don’t ask for a hearing in a case like this. I do understand what a horrible, horrendous record he has,” he said and assured the judge that, at 40, Davis had finally seen the light.
The assistant district attorney, opposing parole, began to chronicle Davis’ criminal record, starting in 1994. Car theft. Gun possession. Retail theft.
“I’m well aware of his record,” Schulman interrupted. With 21 arrests, more than 10 convictions, and seven violations of probation, she said that if she allowed the prosecution to detail it all, “we would be here all day.”
She considered New Leash a good program. “It’s the life skills and the follow-through that is being provided that is very impressive. It’s not just giving an inmate a dog and saying, ‘Let’s see if it helps.’ ”
Every parole decision, she said later, requires a degree of speculation. In Davis’ case, he would be supervised by both the state and the county, with 10 years’ probation left on his armed-robbery conviction and three years left on other sentences.
In the end, Schulman denied Davis outright parole. Instead, she put him under house arrest as long as he lived with his mother and worked at the SPCA.
“But it must be regular normal working hours, Monday through Friday. Otherwise, there is no reason for Mr. Davis to be out of the house.”
Davis’ mother cried.
“Thank you, your honor!” his fiancee said.
“It’s on Mr. Davis to succeed,” said Schulman. “Given the chance he’s been given.”