Wayward teenagers and wayward dogs are almost one in the same. Both being treated less than fair, ending up in tough situations, getting into trouble, being forgotten about and then landing behind bars.
This is where Rikers Rovers stepped in.
Rikers Rovers is a program that selects 15 teenagers, who undergo a rigorous screening process, to feed, walk, train and socialize a dog from the Animal Care and Control of NYC. For 9 weeks these 16 and 17 year old inmates, who are awaiting trial, have the dog in their care at the Robert N. Davoren Complex (RNDC). Once 9 weeks are up, the dog is then put up for adoptions.
In addition to the inmates having this responsibility, a shelter group visits every Wednesday with two dogs. “The dogs have the ability to break through any nonsense. These kids become kids again. They are not in the gang mentality,” said Liz Keller, founder of Rescue Dogs Rescue Soldiers.
“This program teaches adolescents how to be responsible and nurturing, so they can be better members of their communities after they leave our custody,” NYC Department of Correction Commissioner Joe Ponte says. The idea is to curb a spike in violence on Rikers Island.
Since Ace, a labrador mix, arrived three weeks ago, there has been no attacks.
Winette Saunders, head of the Correction Department’s youth programming also shares, “We believe idleness is related to violence. This keeps them busy all day.”
“The kids are so excited. Just the thought of having the dog live within the facility, ” Saunders explained.
The program is still in a pilot stage and some are still skeptical about it. There are fears that the violence will return and the dogs will get hurt. “Just wait until the first dog gets slashed,” said an unnamed supervisor at Rikers.
Regardless, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio praised the program and shared some of its success earlier this year, “There’s a young inmate who previously did not seem like his life was going to go in any good direction, and he was not known for being particularly responsible, but he got selected for the opportunity to train and care for a rescue shelter dog. The mother was honestly shocked to hear that her son had become diligent and responsible in this manner.”
Correction Department officers hope to expand this canine program in the near future as part of their 14 point plan to reduce violence in the jail-system.
As for the jail officers? Their union doesn’t seem to take issue with the pups. Norman Seabrook, president of the Correction Officers Benevolent Association said, “If it helps then I don’t have a problem.”