Bandit is a happy, playful pup who, until very recently, resided at the Gwinnett County Jail, located about 30 miles from downtown Atlanta, Georgia, for the past three years.
He was picked up by Dennis Kronenfeld of the Society of Humane Friends of Georgia, who found him in the county's animal shelter.
Soon after, a vet determined that Bandit was heartworm positive, but the dog had an allergic reaction to the medication that paralyzed his back legs. The vet then fitted the dog with a wheelchair that allows him to play to his heart's content.
But Kronenfeld knew that Bandit would be the perfect fit for Operation Second Chance, a program that pairs inmates with dogs to look after during their time in the jail.
Started by Sheriff Butch Conway in 2010, Operation Second Chance is the first of its kind in jails, given that an inmate's time there may be more limited than in a prison, where similar programs are available. But Conway's desire to help animals and improve the lives of inmates made him determined to see this program come to life.
By partnering with the Society of Humane Friends, a local rescue organization, the jail is able to foster around 30 dogs at a time while the organization deals with adoption applications, health screenings and administrative work that comes along with adopting animals.
The jail, meanwhile, provides valuable space and care for dogs in need of homes. “They come and live in the cell with an inmate,” explained Deputy Shannon Volkodav, the public information officer for the Gwinnet County Sheriff’s Office. “The inmates are responsible for training the dogs.”
Inmates can’t foster a dog if they’ve committed any violent crimes.
Bandit’s last primary caregiver at the jail, Joseph Menelao, 41, was with him for two months. Menelao took Bandit on all of his walks and training sessions, and the dog also slept in the inmate’s cell at night.
A secondary caregiver, Scott Turner, would occasionally look after Bandit in order to provide additional support and continuity for the dog should Menelao move on.
“He’s a good dog,” said Menelao. “He’s very loving and caring.”
Inmates learn how to train the dogs using positive reinforcement. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, trainers come and work with the dogs and inmates for one-hour sessions. This not only provides the inmates with companions, but experience in fostering and caring for dogs — skills that could translate to the real world.
“I know the dogs always get a lot of attention, but what’s often overlooked is the benefit to the people involved in these programs,” said Volkodav. “These inmates — it’s an opportunity for them to experience success in their own right.”
And even though Bandit uses a wheelchair to get around, he learned a lot from the training sessions as well.
Nevertheless, Bandit — whose age and breed haven't been determined by the shelter — had been up for adoption during his entire three years at the jail, compared to most dogs who are only there for a few days or months — something Volkodav chalks up to Bandit's disability.
“He does need a special family who’s willing to help him out a little,” she said. (For example, Menelao had to take Bandit out to relieve himself three times a day.) “But certainly they’ll be rewarded with a wonderful, loving dog.”
Luckily, Bandit's search for a home came to an end last Friday. Sammy and Linda Jeanes of Gwinnett County saw a local television affiliate's segment on the dog and jumped at the chance to bring him home.
The couple owns a 25-acre farm, where they also have horses, dogs, chickens and a pig. According to Volkodav, the couple had no hesitation when bringing home Bandit, and had cared for animals with disabilities before.
And while it's off to greener pastures (literally) for Bandit, his former caretaker, Menelao, said he'll be thinking of his four-legged friend. "As long as he goes to a good home, I'll be happy," he said.
Bandit has also had an impact on everyone he came into contact with during his yearslong stay at the jail.
“Life has not been easy for Bandit, but it hasn’t changed his outlook,” said Volkodav. “We could all learn something from Bandit. He’s a really good example of how you can overcome obstacles and not let it change your disposition or your outlook on life.”