ATLANTA (CW69 News at 10) -- The first graduating class of the 'Beyond the Bars Canine Cellmates' program at the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta celebrated a big milestone on Thursday. The men train rescue dogs as part of a pre-trial diversion program, giving the canines and participants a new lease on life.
Beyond the Bars is one of the first-ever pre-trial diversion and sentencing alternative programs using shelter dogs to break the cycle of incarceration.
"This program has been a life-changer. It's taught me how to be patient. It's taught me how to respect other people and other animals," said Iman, a participant.
Before receiving their certificates for completing the first phase of the program, the handlers were proud to showcase the work they put into training the dogs.
"That's the second chance that the program has given me, to change my ways and learn that I can do better than what I've done," said Quartez, another participant.
Canine Cellmates, a non-profit organization, launched the program in September.
"They come together, and dogs with their magical ability to make a human being believe in themselves again can bring so much healing to each other," said Canine Cellmates Executive Director Susan Jacobs-Meadows.
Participants in the program work with the district attorney's office to select the candidates.
"It's been really especially neat to see the bond that the guys have gotten and how they've become friends during this program, and the bonds they have with their dogs," said Sara Foltz, a trainer.
"Whatever family comes in to adopt them, they're pretty much mannerable and family-oriented dogs already," said Iman.
Meadows reflected on the grim situation participants may have faced without this program.
"All of these men could potentially have gone to prison or certainly spent longer inside Fulton County Jail," she said.
But now, the men are embarking on a new journey.
"I plan on becoming a certified dog trainer after I complete Phase 2 of the project," said Iman.
Once participants complete the year-long program, their charges will be dismissed.
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