Inmates, dogs bond through training, love
Canine CellMates helps ‘save dogs, which in turn helps to save men’
Susan Jacobs-Meadows works with Omega and handlers at the Fulton County Jail as part of the Canine CellMates program. Jacobs- Meadows commits at least 70 hours a week to the program she started nearly 7 years ago that pairs inmates with dogs from Fulton County Animal Services. In addition to working with the dogs, the inmates attend mandatory classes on life skills.
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By Nancy Badertscher
For the AJC

COVER STORY CANINE CELLMATES

Susan Jacobs-Meadows has found pairing unwanted dogs and jail inmates can make life better for both.

Nearly seven years ago, Jacobs-Meadows established the nonprofit Canine CellMates at the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta with the goal of changing the life trajectory of dogs and incarcerated men through 10 weeks of bonding and training.


For the first three years, she juggled obligations to her 10-year-old business — a boutique dress shop — with her commitment to this endeavor.

“Finally, I decided I couldn’t continue to be superwoman,” Jacobs-Meadows, a resident of Peachtree Corners, said.

She gave up the dress shop to devote herself full time to “helping save dogs, which in turn helps to save men.”

Jacobs-Meadows still commits at least 70 hours a week to the program.

“I do this because I believe in it,” she said.

The program entails much more than just bringing wagging tails from Fulton County Animal Services to the jail to interact with inmates.

To participate, dogs potentially facing euthanasia go through extensive screenings to ensure that they have the proper temperament and resilience to be behind bars and with inmates in the highly stressful environment of the 3,000-inmate jail, Jacobs-Meadows said.

During the program, six dogs and 12 inmates bunk together in one large room. Their first week together is strictly for bonding. They then spend five days a week for nine weeks working with a certified trainer — the program’s only paid employee.

To graduate and be adopted, each dog must pass a rigorous obedience test.

“The dogs are the backbone of the program,” Jacobs-Meadows said. “But this program is not about the dogs. It is about the men.”

In addition to working with the dogs, the inmates — most of whom are either awaiting a court date or serving a short sentence — attend mandatory classes on life skills, such as balancing a checkbook, finding a job and building relationships.

Once inmates complete the program and are released from jail, Jacobs-Meadows is willing to “help them to the limits of our resources” with food, transitional housing and job leads.

“But most importantly, what we tell these men are: ‘While you are here, we are your family. And when you leave, as long as you want us to be, we’ll be your family’,” she said.

Sean McKnight and boxer mix Luna are two program graduates.

McKnight, 36, was selected to participate in 2016 after he landed in the Fulton County Jail on a theft charge, an offshoot of an ongoing substance abuse problem.

“Frankly, I was to the point where I wanted to die,” he said.

McKnight paired through the program with a pit-terrier mix that provided “that love” and “those extra kisses” and “filled in the spots in a really dark place.”

“It made the inmates work together and have a purpose,” he said. “It saved my life.”

McKnight has now been off drugs for two years, runs a landscaping service, and is trained to go back to the jail as a Canine CellMates volunteer.

“I’ll be there just to spend time with [the inmates] and let them know they’re loved,” said McKnight, who also volunteers at a church prison ministry.

Luna graduated in 2018 straight into the loving arms of retired teacher Martha Warner and her husband, Tim, in Surfside Beach, S.C.

“We have had zero issues with her,” Warner said.

Luna is obedient and fun, rolling over on command, happily giving high fives and snuggling with the couple’s two older dogs.

Warner said programs such as Canine CellMates “give me hope for people who just really need some grace.”

Jacobs-Meadows had two very personal reasons for starting the program: a lifelong love of dogs and a troubled son.

She has been around dogs since she was 9 months old when her newly widowed mother brought home a boxer to be “nanny” to her three children.

Jacobs-Meadows’ son was in the Fulton, DeKalb and Gwinnett county jails at different points during a 10-year active heroin addiction that he has moved beyond to become a father and fulltime student.

But his stay in those jails convinced Jacobs-Meadows she “wanted to do something,” and, when she had the chance, she pushed to create a dog-inmate program similar to ones she had heard of elsewhere. “I overcame obstacle after obstacle, and they just finally gave in,” she said.

Fulton County Sheriff Ted Jackson said officials initially were “a little apprehensive” about the program, but now fully embrace it. So do the inmates. There’s a waiting list of inmates who want to be in the program, Jackson said.

The sheriff said the program “reinforces our opinion that, if we work with people who came out of bad surroundings and never had a chance, then there’s hope.”

Jackson said he does not believe the program would exist were it not for Jacobs-Meadows.

“Her enthusiasm is the same today as the day we started,” he said.

WHAT INSPIRES SUSAN JACOBS-MEADOWS

■ What inspired you to start Canine CellMates? “I heard about programs like this and was immediately captivated. When I realized how little was being done to help incarcerated men bring about change that would break the cycle of incarceration, and knew that dogs could be this instrument of change, I knew this was something I wanted to do.”

■ How do you measure success? “Success is measured through positive change. We understand that it is progress, not perfection — old ways of thinking and practices may not change overnight, and we know that mistakes will still be made. Helping these men to maintain hope, and continue to work for more positive outcomes, is definitely success.”

 HELP US INSPIRE ATLANTA 

We recognize a big part of our journalistic mission is to shine a spotlight on wrongdoings and to hold our public officials accountable. But we also understand the importance of celebrating our region’s moments, milestones and people.

That’s exactly what we hope to accomplish with Inspire Atlanta.

Each week, Inspire Atlanta will profile a person who makes metro Atlanta a better place in which to live.

Of course, we can’t do this alone: We need your help in finding extraordinary people and identifying inspiring stories across our region. We learned about Susan Jacobs- Meadows from Mercedes-Benz/USA. The automaker has recognized Canine CellMates and Jacobs-Meadows through its “Greatness Lives Here” program.

Know someone who inspires you or makes metro Atlanta a better place for others? Email us at inspireatlanta@ajc.com.