Q&A: Marian V. Marchese of New Leash on Life USA

The Penn Valley resident’s volunteer efforts quickly snowballed into an educational program for the Philadelphia Prison System’s inmates, while granting a new life to abandoned animals.

Continued from Delaware County SPCA.

Marian V. Marchese with Ryan Howard. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)Everyone deserves a second chance, whether they have two legs or four. That’s the driving philosophy behind New Leash on Life USA, the brainchild of Penn Valley’s Marian V. Marchese. As an animal-lover with a desire to do something beneficial for her community, Marchese started a program that pairs inmates from the Philadelphia prison system with dogs that would otherwise be euthanized. The 12-week program teaches participants how to care for another life and take responsibility for their actions, providing job skills they can use later with help from NLLUSA’s job placement program. As for the dogs, there’s a happy ending for them, too.

MLT: How did this organization begin?
MM: About five years ago, I began volunteering at a Philadelphia animal shelter. I was dumbfounded by what I saw. It’s not like a shelter in the movies, with the nice little poodles and retrievers in neat cages, where everyone gets adopted. The city shelters get 30,000 dogs and cats per year, and so many of them never make it out. I felt like I had to figure out something to do.

MLT: How did prisons factor in?
MM: Animals are healing, and I thought it would be beneficial to the prison population to have something positive to do. When I started working on this project, there was nothing like it in Philadelphia. I had no background in prison reform, social work or animal welfare, so I started talking to people and doing research. I was able to find really good experts in animal training—vet techs, social workers, groomers and others.

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Marian V. Marchese's second dog, Chooch. (Photo by Jared Castaldi)MLT: What benefits does the 12-week program offer for its participants?
MM: It teaches them patience, the value of positive reinforcement and teamwork. The whole group needs to graduate in order for the program to be a success. And with two inmates to a dog in a small cell, they have to learn to be patient, flexible and to communicate with each other effectively. It teaches them to give love openly, which is socially not permitted in a prison environment. It also allows them to connect with creatures that don’t care about what they did—they just want to be loved. It’s truly amazing.

MLT: How do you select the human and canine participants?
MM: The prison uses its own social workers to tell us who will be the most appropriate for this program. The caveats are that we will not work with anyone who has committed a crime of sexual abuse, child abuse, animal abuse or arson. As for the animals, we select dogs at risk for being euthanized. If it’s a rescue animal or one that has already been selected for adoption, we won’t use them. We take the dogs that are really on their last couple of hours.

MLT: How does the program work?
MM: After we’ve selected our candidates, the dogs are paired with two inmates, with whom they live 24/7 for three months. We have a certified dog trainer who goes in every week, and she teaches them how to train a dog to be obedient. We also have a vet tech who comes in once a week to teach the inmates how to groom their dogs, what nutrition and health dogs need, why you don’t breed dogs and why you don’t fight dogs.

MLT: What practical skills do the inmates learn?
MM: We work with the Pennsylvania Prison Society and JEVS Human Services, two organizations that have been working in prisons for many years to provide tremendous skill resources. Most of our inmates are serving two-year sentences. For those who are interested and available, we find them internships in animal-services organizations, which they can then put on their résumés. They learn how to work in the real world, and it could turn into a job for them.

MLT: What’s the success rate been like?
MM: We started collecting data from the Center for Outcome Analysis. The data is based on staff and inmate interviews before the program, partway through the program and at the end of the program. The center measures their responses to administration and corrections officers. What they found is that violence is down and communication is better, which makes it a better atmosphere for everyone. We want to have those numbers to quantify the anecdotal evidence that this program does work.

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MLT: And the fate of the dogs?
MM: By the time graduation rolls around, all the dogs have been adopted by members of the community outside the prison. In fact, our first dogs from our pilot program were all adopted by the corrections officers themselves.

To learn more, visit newleashonlife-usa.org.

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