Kelvin Simmons was sitting in the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta awaiting sentencing on assault charges in September when a surprising offer came in: Would he be interested in training shelter dogs and taking life-skills classes instead of being locked up?
He already knew that Canine CellMates placed shelter dogs with inmates in their jail cells on the condition that they would train the dogs for adoption, he said, and he knew it had helped men rehabilitate their lives.
But this was something different.
Inmates who were recommended for this diversion program, Beyond the Bars, would be released from jail if they agreed to stay with the project for one year. And if they successfully trained a dog and finished the required self-help classes — including conflict resolution, parenting skills and time management — the charges against them would be dropped.
“I’d been buffing floors and doing odd jobs in the jail to stay busy, so this came out of the blue and was a nice surprise,” said Simmons, 42.
“I’ve always loved dogs, and here was a chance to make a difference,” he said. “When I found it was for real, I definitely wanted to do it.”
From the day he was paired with Blazer, an energetic mixed-breed dog that had been obtained from an Atlanta animal shelter, Simmons said he felt an instant bond.
“He was locked up, and I was locked up,” he said. “We’d both gone through some tough things in life. And now we were both getting a second chance.”
When Canine CellMates founder Susan Jacobs-Meadows came up with the idea for Beyond the Bars last year, she was inspired by a relative’s experience of hopelessness while he was in jail.
“I’m a big-picture person, and I could see that there was a new and creative way to expand our dog-training program if we structured it like an accountability court,” she said. “Instead of spending more time locked up, I thought, ‘What if men who qualified could come to us?’ ”
Jacobs-Meadows took her plan to Jill Hollander, a deputy district attorney for Fulton County, who said she was immediately intrigued.
“I was happy to help because Canine CellMates was already so successful in the jail for both the guys and the dogs,” Hollander said. “There are people who need guidance more than they need treatment, and Susan’s idea offered an intense relationship between the animal, the program and the participant.”
“A dog doesn’t judge you — a dog just wants love,” she added. “And the dogs are completely reliant on these men succeeding.”
Hollander said she developed some participation guidelines so that men who had been unsuccessful at previous intervention methods would receive top consideration.
“We’re looking for a person with a pattern — maybe that’s addiction or theft — and that person genuinely wants to break that cycle and become a productive member of society,” she said.
She does not allow into the program men who have been convicted of crimes such as murder, rape, child abuse or armed robbery, Hollander said. Men who have abused animals also are ineligible.
“Our most important consideration is: ‘Is this person safe for the animal?’ ” Hollander said.
Men accepted into Beyond the Bars need to have housing lined up, often with family or friends, and if they have jobs, their work schedule cannot interfere with their rehabilitation classes.
Jacobs-Meadows fine-tuned the classes, and she and volunteers teach them at the Canine CellMates facility. The classes focus on financial literacy, critical thinking skills and “Staying Out of Jail 101.” The first seven men were selected for Beyond the Bars last fall.
Now that those men have successfully trained their dogs, they have moved on to the second phase of classes, while five other men have been accepted to train a new group of shelter dogs, Jacobs-Meadows said.
Participants are taught how to care for the dogs before they teach leash-walking and basic obedience commands such as “sit,” “wait,” “crate” and “stay,” she said.
“They’re working with dogs, but this isn’t a ‘get out of jail free’ card,” Hollander added.
“We’ve structured this as an intense diversion program,” she said, referring to a way that a defendant can avoid jail and a criminal conviction. “Beyond the Bars is designed to change the way that people who have been in jail or prison see the world.”
Prequalified candidates are either directed to the program by judges or are referred by the district attorney’s office, Hollander said, adding that she carefully screens recommended participants, then refers them to Jacobs-Meadows for in-depth interviews to ensure they will be a good fit to work with shelter dogs.
“Are they saying things they think I want to hear or are they engaged in the conversation?” Jacobs-Meadows said. “How sincere does their desire to work with dogs seem to be?”
Only men are eligible for the plan at this time because their incarceration numbers are higher, Hollander said. In 2020, 1.2 million men were in U.S. prisons, compared with about 83,000 women, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
Participants are required to go to the Canine CellMates facility four days a week for the first three months, said Jacobs-Meadows, and their classwork gradually decreases after their dogs have been fully trained and are ready for adoption.
If any of the men drop out before completing the entire curriculum, their cases will be referred back to the district attorney’s office, she said.
The dogs are the magic behind Beyond the Bars, said Jacobs-Meadows, who gets most of the canines from Fulton County Animal Services. The county shelter is classified as a “no-kill” facility but still puts down about 10 percent of its animals every year.
Only three of the seven trained rescue dogs have been adopted so far, she said, but she expects that the numbers will climb as Beyond the Bars grows and more dogs are paired with new participants. The not-yet adopted dogs stay at the Canine CellMates facility.
Simmons, who was in the first group of seven trainers, said he still misses Blazer, who was adopted after he graduated from training in December.
“Saying goodbye was really hard; I was in tears,” he said. “Blazer is a sweet dog who loves to be held and snuggled. I told him that he was going to a good home and that he was a lucky dog, and he seemed good with that.”
Once Simmons also graduates from Beyond the Bars this summer, he hopes to adopt a dog of his own, he said. He is working part-time as an unarmed security guard and said he hopes to find a full-time job once he has finished with the program.
“This has changed my life. I’ve been to prison a couple of times,” Simmons said. “I have three kids, and I’m now learning how to be a better father and a better listener. I’m learning it’s easier to take a deep breath and relax.”
Jason Weese said he could have faced charges of aggravated assault after a domestic dispute last year but was instead placed with Beyond the Bars. He said his dog, Blossom, has taught him important lessons about patience and compassion.
“I’m a better communicator now that I’m working with her,” said Weese, 46. “She’s this huge dog like Marmaduke, but she has this sweet personality that just gets you.”
“Blossom doesn’t want anything except to be loved and to love someone,” he said. “Kind of like me.”