An unlikely mix of inmates and rescued dogs are leaning on each other for emotional support at the James I. Montgomery Correctional facility.

As part of a University of North Florida class, Professor Jennifer Wesely teaches students about the role of canines in inmate rehabilitation.

UNF students are required to step out of the classroom to meet inmates participating in the program. For many students, it was the first time last week they were exposed to the prison environment.

Being at Montgomery allowed UNF students and inmates to engage in a discussion to challenge their own beliefs about inmate rehabilitation.

Criminal justice major Mikenzie Oldham said the program gave her direction, and helped her realize she could mesh her interests together; which are training dogs and helping at-risk populations.

The students observed the canine-intervention program called Teaching Animals and Inmates Life skills (TAILS). The program is a collaboration between the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office, the Florida Department of Corrections and the animal rescue nonprofit Pit Sisters.

Jean Deane, the founder of Pit Sisters, recognized the lack of a pitbull shelter in Jacksonville and — wanting to change their reputations as a violent breed — started the program, eventually taking in other dogs once the program expanded.

In TAILS, inmates get assigned a dog rescued from fighting rings, abusive owners and bad living situations and they are given the opportunity to retrain their behavior using positive reinforcement.

The dogs are provided with two owners who essentially foster the dogs until they are trained so they can be put up for adoption. Not only do the dogs benefit from the situation, but the inmates are forced to regiment their lives, and care for a dog who relies on them for love, support and training.

“In the beginning he looked terrible but now he is lively and looks good.” Williams said, “Its nice, life is better when you have someone to talk to and he listens.”

Through this process, many inmates reflected on the changes in the dogs, as well as the personal impact training the dogs has had on their outlook on life.

Inmate Levar Franklin exemplifies the changes as he displayed the tricks he taught Bella, his canine counterpart. Bell was the first dog in the program at the Montgomery Correctional facility. The dog started the program May 9.

“I love Ms. Bell,” said Franklin, “Ms. Bell changed me. Instead of thinking about negative stuff, I work with my dog.”

Through teaching Ms. Bell tricks, many of the inmate trainers have learned patience, and how to care for an animal.

“She keeps me working and busy so I don’t have to worry about anything negative and its always about her as long as it’s about her, I’ll be alright, because I love her and she loves me. And you got to be persistent,” Franklin said.

Lisa Irre, JSO officer and director of TAILS program, and several other officers have observed an increase in the positive attitudes of inmates as well as increased respect between officers and inmates.

“Officers don’t get to know [inmates] so well, [this way] your able to sit down and talk to them and mentor them and get to know them on a personal level,” said Irre, “The program improves correctional and prisoner relationships and helps them, [inmates] will listen if you give them advice.”

Irre said usually the biggest problem with rehabilitation programs is they don’t teach life skills that inmates need like time management, social skills, and discipline. More times than not prisoners share the same negative attitude when they entered jail as they leave.

What is different about the canine rehabilitation is that it has had a transformative effect on the motivations of the inmates in the facility after they leave, say the correctional officers.

After release, Franklin intends to continue to work with dogs to help train them, and wants to start by volunteering.