January 23, 2012



January 23, 2012


CELL BLOCK B in the city jail on State Road is a happy place.

It has men and it has dogs.

The dogs, like the men, were sent there to learn good behavior and social skills.

Unlike the men, the dogs don’t know they’re in jail. To them, it’s a place where they enjoy constant care and loving attention.

The men are serving time for minor charges – drug dealing, theft, burglary, violating parole. Not pranks, but not violent.

Most come from the ‘hood. The dogs come from shelters where their days were numbered.

The dogs and the men are sharing cells, thanks to a program called New Leash on Life USA created by Marian Marchese, a semiretired advertising-agency owner from Penn Valley who admits she copied the idea from TV – Animal Planet’s “Cell Dogs.”

Hers is an 11-week program in which a homeless dog is bunked with two inmates who learn to groom, feed and train the dog to make it more adoptable. The dog learns good manners and obedience, the men learn skills and patience. Win-win.

Today, the second “class” of six dogs – all named for NFL quarterbacks – will graduate and become available for adoption. The men will remain, most serving 11 1/2- to 23-month sentences.

New Leash differs from similar programs, Marchese tells me during a prison visit, in that “it is built as much around the inmate as the dog.”

Taking care of the animal “teaches them responsibility and a skill they might be able to use to get a job on the outside.” New Leash helps them do that, just as it helps place the four-legged graduates in homes.

Human candidates for the program are selected by the prison. Abusers of any sort – animal, child, sexual – are barred. Dog crates are placed in the cell with the two convict/trainers. Dogs think of their crates as their personal space, but some inmates sheepishly admit they let the dogs sleep with them in their bunks if the dog wants to.

Prison Lt. Daniel Raab is an enthusiastic supporter of the program in his jail.

“Inmates are more cooperative when there are things to do,” he tells me, adding that taking care of the dogs helps the inmates “deal with stress, frustration and anger management.”

Another benefit is expressed by inmate Wilfredo Rivera, 37, who shares a cell with Romo (named after Cowboys QB Tony Romo). “That dog right there,” he says, pointing at the energetic, 90-pound Rhodesian ridgeback mix, “he brought out the parent in me, taught me responsibility.”

That’s a big thing. So is this:

“It’s important to me that the dog is adopted, even though we get attached to them,” says Henry Wilczynski, 57, of Port Richmond. “We make them more house-ready.”

The socialized dogs get new homes, the men learn new skills and find that their lives have meaning behind the walls – and it doesn’t cost taxpayers a dime.

It took two years for Marchese to set up New Leash as a nonprofit. Her current budget of $250,000 – much from well-heeled suburbanites – covers the cost of the dog crates, vet care, food, cleaning supplies, the services of outside trainers and helping to place inmates in jobs.

A dynamic 59-year-old who calls the program her passion, Marchese hopes to build on the program and take it national.

Here on State Road, a new pack of dogs will enter the prison at the end of February, making Cell Block B once again a happy place for the incarcerated men and homeless dogs.


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