Jon Grobman was certain that he would never see the world behind the walls of the maximum security prison in which he was incarcerated in 2005 again.
The former hotel and casino manager served 190 years in prison in Los Angeles County State Prison in Lancaster, California. The conviction did not include the possibility of parole.
â€œBig theft, burglary, forgery, embezzlement, meth possession,â€ he ticks off his criminal record highlights. “All non-violent crimes, but under California’s Three Strikes Act, I received life imprisonment for any offense.”
Grobman, 54, now lives in the Napa Valley with his family. He is the first Lifer in California whose harsh judgment was overturned four years ago by a little-known legal clause called â€œRecall of Commitmentâ€.
Grobman, who qualified for commutation because of his â€œextraordinary behaviorâ€, believes he owed it all to the first dog to start his journey into rehabilitation: Oreo, a black and white lab mix.
In 2014, volunteer dog rescue worker Alex Tonner set out to temporarily place dogs in prison to rescue them from overcrowded animal shelters where they would be killed for lack of space.
â€œIt was only about saving the dogs,â€ admits Tonner with refreshing honesty and a self-deprecating laugh. â€œI really didn’t care about the boys. But that changed quickly. “
Shelters are in some ways similar to prisons: dogs and cats are often locked behind bars, and many face the death penalty for crimes they did not commit.
“They are thrown away because society no longer wants them,” says Grobman. “Like us.”
In 2014 Tonner founded the non-profit Paws for Life K9 Rescue and launched California’s first dog rehabilitation program in the men’s maximum security prison in Lancaster. Detainees commit to spending at least six weeks with a puppy from an animal shelter and working with a trainer so that the dogs can earn the Good Canine Certificate and become more acceptable.
Since its inception, the program has expanded exponentially. It has now rescued and housed more than 680 dogs, expanded to three prisons (Lancaster, Mule Creek, and Vacaville), trained 185 incarcerated people, and added a service dog program where dogs spend up to a year with prison trainers, eventually becoming veterans and helping first responders with PTSD.
Every dog â€‹â€‹has found a home.
The most surprising outcome of the program, however, is the impact it has on people: 39 Paws for Life attendees, most of whom were serving life sentences, were commuted to those sentences – more than any other California prison program.
“Paw up!” all inmates scream with their hands up when the dogs graduate or when someone is released.
When the program started, Grobman wasn’t even interested in participating, but they couldn’t find enough people to sign up.
â€œThat all changed when they brought the first dogs with them,â€ he recalls. â€œOreo bit me several times, but I was already addicted. Every aspect of having a dog was associated with too much joy. “
Emotions cover his voice when he speaks of the “healing that has taken place”. Receiving unconditional love from an animal is life changing when you were the animal 10 or 20 years ago and didn’t deserve a second chance. “
In the PBS documentation Protect meMusician John Legend says: “This program gives dogs and people a second chance to find meaning and happiness.”
For example, you see Alex Tonner jail a shy gray pit bull named Asher.
â€œHe was scared of tucking his tail; it reminded me so much of myself the first time I walked in, â€says his prison coach, Miguel Rendon.
Six weeks later, Asher wags his tail confidently while performing the “sit” and “down” commands Rendon taught him, but Rendon breaks down crying as he hands Asher’s leash to his new owner.
“It affects a part of your soul that has sometimes been neglected for decades and decades,” interferes fellow participant Louie Brash. “Everyone knows that the dogs help us.”
Waiting list of 200
The prison went from looking for the first 14 participants to a waiting list of 200 men.
In prison, Grobman says, â€œYou are just a number. But a dog doesn’t know that. He doesn’t ask what crime you have committed. “
Especially in his case, â€œthe judge specifically said that I have no value to society. He was very clear that he would not have given me so much time if he believed that I would ever have a chance of success. That was my way of thinking: I am worthless. “
Not only did the dogs prove to be better behaved companions, they also fundamentally changed the atmosphere in the prison. “Injured people hurt people,” says Grobman.
â€œA large percentage of inmates grew up in abusive households or were abused. It’s about breaking this cycle. So many had no one to trust. The program makes you human and makes you feel that you are worth loving. “
The program is no longer just about dog training.
“There is so much racism, violence and anger in prison,” says Grobman. â€œThe biggest challenge we faced was creating a family culture within our program. We did that by putting the dog first. “
When putting together a team of three, he “purposely chose a white, a Hispanic, and a black … they work together for the dog and learn to respect one another.”
A prison guard confirms in the documentation: â€œThe inmates are very different here. You are very respectful; it’s a completely different world. â€And Alex Tonner now calls them family. â€œI am in awe of them,â€ she says.
â€œI think people shouldn’t just get locked up and throw away the keys. You should have the chance to rehabilitate. “
In Protect me, Grobman visits former Governor Jerry Brown, who describes the canine program as â€œpart of the transformation under way in our prisons. It has a very big impact. “
A template for other countries?
Tonner and Grobman’s vision is for other prisons and states to use their experiences as a template. In other states there are already programs with slightly different models, such as TAILS (Teaching Animals and Inmates Life Skills) in Florida or Puppies Behind Bars, where prisoners train young puppies from eight weeks to become service dogs for veterans and first aiders and dogs for two years Explosives detection for law enforcement.
But in 2018, a violent incident at another prison program shocked the rescue community: A man imprisoned in Lebanon, Ohio, beat a young German Shepherd to the death in his cell. The rescue organization there immediately stopped all prison activities.
Tonner assures me that no animal abuse has occurred in their program. “I took a guy off the line just because he was holding the leash too tight,” she says.
She has safeguards in place: only people who have not had any disciplinary action against her in at least two years can file an application, and those convicted of child or animal abuse are excluded. Two to three boys form a team to train each dog. Participation in the program has become an asset none of the prisoners wants to lose.
Jon Grobman is now the external program director of Paws for Life and regularly visits his old pals. He shakes his head as he sits in his tiny former prison cell in Lancaster, number 135, with the heavy blue metal doors rattling.
â€œFor a long time I cried every time I left prison. Survivor’s fault. There are so many men in there who deserve a chance. But I also understand the hope and inspiration I bring with me when I get back on board. “
He is particularly proud that not a single Paws for Life participant has relapsed. Many of the participants who were able to convert their sentences use their training experience to work as dog trainers or groomers or to run pensions.
Grobman helps his imprisoned friends transition when they are released. â€œI remember standing at the self-checkout kiosk at Target and being so embarrassed because I couldn’t find out. So I give something back to other brothers who drop out and help people overcome the barriers of society. “
In fact, Paws for Life has just completed construction of a dog training center in Mission Hills, the People and Pet Innovation Center, which doubles as a re-entry program.
Grobman also got a parting present from prison. When he was due to appear before a judge for his Recall of Commitment hearing after eleven years in Lancaster, he tried not to get hopeful and expected this to be the first of many trials with minimal chance of success.
But the judge (who had never heard of this legal clause either) was so impressed with Grobman that he released him on the spot.
â€œTen hours later, I was standing on the street with my father, my lawyer and my girlfriend, crying my eyes,â€ he says. The judge didn’t even give him parole. He was a free man. “I could not believe it.”
Grobman had been tending to a Belgian Malinois who had been shot in the chest on the streets of Stockton. Grobman nursed him back to health in prison, and when Grobman did not return, the dog stopped eating.
The prison authorities decided they had no choice but to send Mallie to Grobman.
“Before that, I told Alex that every dog â€‹â€‹that leaves prison takes a piece of my heart with it without thinking that I would ever be free.”
Michaela Haas, Ph.D., is an editor at Reasons to be Cheerful. This story, originally published in Reasons to be Cheerful, is featured here by the Solutions journalism exchange, Part of that Solutions Journalism Networks Programs to disseminate rigorous reporting on responses to problems.