Akeem Musa was released from prison last April after serving more than 15 years on drug charges. Unlike some inmates, he knew where he wanted to go when he got out: the Dane County Humane Society. And that's all thanks to an innovative program called Second Chances.
"You have to understand, being in prison, you're surrounded by a lot of negatives," says Musa, 38, who played a small role with the program while serving his term. "So when you're given a positive you have the chance to do something right."
The Second Chances program, now in its second year, brings troubled dogs to Thompson Correctional Center in Deerfield. The dogs are given to specially selected inmates over a period of 12 weeks.
Each week, a canine trainer from the Humane Society meets with the inmates in the program to teach them training techniques and offer assistance. The dogs' problems vary, from shyness to a general distrust of humans.
"Sometimes, they might be puppies that just need some toilet training," says Gayle Viney, the Humane Society's spokesperson. "Maybe the dogs are a little shy or a little too rambunctious and need some command training. We've had a group out there that came from a puppy mill so they were very timid toward people."
But after a few short weeks in prison, "it was amazing how much they came out of their shells."
Second Chances was based on the "Rebound Program" in Appleton, which for the past five years has helped more than 500 dogs get the training they needed to make them adoptable. The Dane County Humane Society's program is funded without the use of taxpayer dollars, due to a grant from Petco and other private donations to the Humane Society.
The program is rewarding for the dogs and the people who adopt them. But it's also immensely rewarding for the inmates, who spend 24 hours a day with the dogs and keep a journal of all activities. The Second Chances program has been going since early 2009 and has thus far helped about a dozen dogs - and about as many inmates.
"These inmates have a sense of pride at the graduation ceremony," says Viney. "They've had something positive to focus on and be proud of."
Musa was not a trainer with the Second Chances program, but he did participate in it as a dog sitter while at Thompson Correctional. After his release he came to work at the Humane Society as a volunteer. He's since been hired to do janitorial work, while also still volunteering.
Obviously, state prisons were not designed to train dogs, troubled or otherwise. Thompson Correctional Center is already a low-security facility, but those involved with the program are given even more free rein to move around.
While in the program, the dogs live in the inmates' cells. They're crated when they sleep and spend time with "dog sitters" when their trainers are gone for longer periods of time.
But that rarely happens - for the trainers, it's a 24-seven job. Troy Hermans, who helps coordinate the Second Chances program at Thompson, says it's one of many tools the Department of Corrections uses to help rehabilitate inmates, and it gives them a greater incentive to follow the rules.
"It teaches them responsibility. They're the ones taking care of the dogs, making sure they get fed and trained," says Hermans. "And I think there's a certain set of emotions that an animal can bring out that is different from anything we can do."
At a graduation ceremony this summer, the inmate trainers were allowed to come to the Humane Society to tout their dogs and talk with the pets' new adoptive families. Each wrote a statement that Viney read aloud to the crowd.
"But I always remember the final goal [of] helping the dog find a loving home for the rest of his life," wrote an inmate who trained Porter, a boxer. "I believe that this program helps all involved and is a program worth being associated with."
Lee Lemirand, a student at UW-Milwaukee, adopted Porter after hearing about Second Chances on a TV report. After the graduation ceremony, he spoke to Porter's former trainer for more than 15 minutes about the dog's quirks.
"I saw Porter and he was a wonderful dog," Lemirand says. "It's so great for the inmate and the dog. He obviously knew so much about Porter. He clearly loved him."
Musa knows the feeling. He says the program gives people who are outcasts from society a chance to love and be loved.
"This dog don't want anything from you, he just wants you to play with him," Musa says. "Animals have the ability to change people, because when you look into the eyes of one of those dogs, you have no choice but to just love it."