Sugar Mama was destined to die.
Officials in Putnam County, Florida, rescued her from a dog fighting ring. Most fighting dogs are euthanized, but things were different for Sugar Mama. County officials teamed with pit bull rescue volunteers and a group of dedicated prison officials and inmates to help the canine. The rescue of Sugar Mama not only saved her life, but helped to heal the spirit of the soon-to-be-released inmate, who became her trainer and caretaker.
“I have been incarcerated for a long time and haven’t really had relationships with other people or animals,” Jason J. Bertrand, 33, who is scheduled for a December release from the Jacksonville (Florida) Bridge Community Release Center after completing an almost 15-year prison sentence, told PEOPLE. “Sugar Mama allowed me to have a relationship with another living being. I still get emotional talking about it and I’m trying not to do that now.”
The program is part of TAILS – Teaching Animals and Inmates Life Skills – that matches inmates with dogs that are surrendered, rescued or otherwise abandoned.
Jen Deane, founder of the 100 percent non-profit, Jacksonville, Florida-based volunteer organization Pit Sisters, oversees the prison programs that match needy dogs with inmates who train and care for the canines until they are ready for adoption.
“Before we began I called prison programs all over the country to find out what they did, how it worked and what we could do,” said Deane, who based the training on that devised by the Association of Professional Dog Trainers. “Our goal this year was to put 200 dogs through the program [at various correctional facilities] and we will meet that goal. I’m not sure if that is the highest number ever put through [such programs] but it’s pretty darned close. And all have been adopted except two that are fostered.”
Bertrand knew almost as soon as he met Sugar Mama that he would pay the $40 adoption fee – that pays for microchip insertion and other care – to adopt her. When he first met her in March, she was recovering from surgery for a broken back, but her joyous, responsive personality quickly won his heart and filled him with a purpose.
“When I first met Sugar Mama, she was freshly shaved from surgery,” said Bertrand. “I picked her up and walked her to the room and she was so tiny and sweet. She is not mean by any shot. I wanted her right away and I love to spoil her. She is the most spoiled dog on the face of the earth. She sleeps in my bed and goes everywhere with me. Even when other [people] walk her, they say ‘Come get your dog. She wants to be with you!’ “
Tracee Sule, owner of Jacksonville-area Zoomeez Dog Training, is inspired by her training work with the inmates, facility staff and other TAILS volunteers.
“The biggest thing to me is that this is a second chance for the dogs and for the inmates,” she said. “A lot of these dogs came from backgrounds that didn’t give them a fair start in life. That’s also true of some of the inmates. This program truly benefits both groups.”
Bridges’s staff member Julian Williams was looking for a challenge when he volunteered to manage the TAILS program in November 2015. What he found was a new respect for the human-canine connection.
“These guys are so overprotective of their dogs, they treat them like their own kids,” he said. “It shows me that regardless of what these guys have gone through, there is a lot of hope for them [after release]. I am always preaching to these guys that we are giving these dogs a second chance, like they’re getting a second chance to get back into society. I have the utmost respect and admiration for these men.”
And even though Williams dotes on Cholo, the fighting dog he adopted from the program, the inmates, dedication to their animals astonishes him.
“It is just amazing to see these grown men who seem so tough cradle their dogs, walk their dogs and treat them just like babies,” he said. “I appreciate Jen for allowing me to be a part of this. It humbles me to see these men taking care of these living creatures with so much tender loving care. Sometimes I get emotional knowing what the inmates have been through and then watching them kiss and cradle their dogs. It makes you see them in a completely different way.”