December 13, 2021
Contact: FDC Communications
ICYMI: Hamilton Hounds prison dogs graduate
Credit: Bryce Ethridge Valdosta Daily TimesOriginal Article Here
VALDOSTA – Five dogs celebrated a “new leash on life” as they graduated from the Hamilton Correctional Facility’s Hamilton Hounds prison dog program.
Brooke, Savannah, Kermit, Rachel and Mars all walked across the stage and into the arms of their new families.
This is the first-ever group to graduate from the Hamilton Correctional Facility. It was a moment that left their trainers in tears.
In the words of Lori Johnson, a trainer from North Florida PAWS, “What we’re doing is a wonderful thing, but at the same time, it breaks our hearts.”
These sentiments were carried by the 10 inmates at Hamilton Correctional Facility who teamed up to raise the dogs through the 10-week program.
The phrase “new leash on life” doesn’t just go for the dogs. It goes for the inmates, too, as all of them felt that as they saved the dogs’ lives, their lives were saved in kind.
Jeremiah Tillery was one of the inmates who felt that way. He trained Savannah alongside Nicholas Normand; however, he’s an outlier among his fellow inmate trainers.
Whereas the nine other inmates are on a short-term sentence, Tillery is on a long-term sentence having faced 27 years of that sentence already.
He’s become a mentor to other inmates and has found a new life in training Savannah.
He said the Hamilton Hounds program was something transactional that became transformational as the inmates found themselves in the dogs who were all pitbull mixes.
Just as pitbulls are asking society for a second chance, he said, so are the inmates.
“We’ve taken a lot from society and now we’re able to give something back and it means a lot,” Tillery said. “The prison system is changing. People are being more open-minded (and) they’re seeing that we can get out of prison, we can adjust back into society, we can be productive.”
On top of that, the inmates are receiving job training as they become certified trainers once the program is finished, graduating alongside the dogs.
It’s an investment into their wellbeing. Passion, love, commitment and forgiveness are at the heart of the program.
Victoria Grindle, lead dog handler at the Humane Society of Valdosta-Lowndes County, broke into tears as she reminisced back to the first week of the program.
She remembers telling the inmates they’re giving the dogs a “real chance” at finding a home and truly saving their lives.
“A few days later, I’m told by someone whose heart is as big as his dog that these dogs were going to save them,” Grindle said. “What I was not expecting was watching these 10 men love their dogs as much as I do.”
Training the dogs brought on a paternal feeling, Tillery said.
From sunup to sundown, the inmate trainers fed the dogs, gave them love and attention. The dogs were treated like family until night when it was time to snuggle up together for sleep.
It was humanizing. It was needed. It was rehabilitating.
“That’s what we need — to be re-humanized,” Tillery said. “After being in prison for so long, you kind of get detached from different feelings and it’s hard to detach with these dogs. They’ll bring it out of you.”
But bringing back these emotions was empowering and motivational, too.
Thomas Hickman, who trained Rachel with Givanni Parks, earned his GED during the 10-week training process, an accomplishment shortening his sentence by 60 days.
Because of his efforts, he’ll be back to his family in time for New Year 2022.
Hickman’s process of getting his GED started before he was a part of Hamilton Hounds. He began re-examining his philosophy on life before training Rachel.
It was a philosophy that started with a question: What type of man do I want to be? He asked himself this question recognizing the negative path he was going down.
“Coming in, I was wild and everything (but) coming in has given me time to actually think,” he said. “I really needed to do something. I’m losing my family, losing my life (and) I need to change otherwise I’m just going to end down the same road I’ve been on.”
Between achieving his GED and graduating from the Hamilton Hounds program, Hickman said he felt alive and recommended both programs as ways to better oneself.
The Hamilton Hounds program continued Dec. 9 with six more dogs being brought in for training, a small increase in response to the positive results from the prior group.
As Florida's largest state agency, and the third largest state prison system in the country, FDC employs 24,000 members, incarcerates 80,000 inmates and supervises nearly 146,000 offenders in the community.