St. Tammany Parish Jail will soon be starting a new innovative program for inmates. The St. Tammany Parish Jail and Doggone Express, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization based in Belle Chasse, will be partnering together to bring “From The Big House to Your House” program to St. Tammany Parish.
The Big House program pairs inmates with dogs from the local “kill shelter”. The program is designed to make dogs more adoptable and also allow inmates to gain marketable skills in canine training. Deputy Chief Danell Gerchow of the St. Tammany Parish Sheriff’s Office says she is excited about bringing the program to St. Tammany.
“We have the support,” says Gerchow. “We want St. Tammany to be a model for other jails to follow.”
“The Big House to Your House,” or just, “Big House” for short, has the potential to have layers of impact on the greater north shore community area.
“The first step in the program was partnering with St. Tammany Parish Animal Services, which we’ve done,” said Gerchow. “We met with Parish President Pat Brister, and she was behind the program from the beginning. Most of the dogs will be ones that have been up for adoption for a long period of time, not likely to be adopted, and possibly in danger of euthanization.”
Before the dogs are brought to the inmates, also called “CATS” (Canine Assessment Training Staff), the inmates will go through an orientation program. This orientation will consist of basic knowledge and history of the dog breed, along with a few basic training techniques.
Once the canines arrive at the jail, they will be paired with an inmate to begin the training. The canines will be taught such skills as sitting, staying, and other abilities that will make them more adoptable. The dogs will also emerge from the program fully kennel trained. Upon arrival, the inmate now has full responsibility of the dog. The inmates involved in the program remain on-site, training their dogs all day. The canine will remain with the inmate 24 hours a day. This becomes the inmate’s new job.
Gerchow says that the program will start off small at St. Tammany, but will grow.
“We’re starting the program with three dogs, with the goal of increasing the program each month,” says Gerchow who hopes to have the Big House program fully up and running in about 30-60 days.
“Capt. Mindy Pellegrin will be overseeing the program along with Mr. Cline Mathies, who is the Jail Facilities Director,” Gerchow continued. “They’re preparing the training area, which will have a fenced yard with a wash area and also an agility training exercise area.”
According the Gerchow, the goal is to eventually train service dogs for veterans, the elderly, sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), autistic children, and those with other disabilities.
As the inmates train the dogs, they also receive benefits from the training program. One could even say that the inmates might just get as much out of it as the canines do.
“Saving paws, saving souls,” Bill Barse, owner of Doggone Express said. “That’s how I would define ‘The Big House.'” He went on to say that the program teaches the inmate valuable skills through work with the canine. “Dogs will probably train you quicker than you’ll train the dog,” said Barse.
According to Gerchow, the inmates will also find a friend in their assigned canine. Many inmates do not have family or friends that visit them in jail. Having the canine gives the inmate purpose and responsibility and creates some normalcy inside the tall metal fences. As one inmate at another facility that implemented the program said to Gerchow, “It’s like Christmas every day.”
Gerchow, an avid animal lover herself, was inspired to start the program after recently fostering a furry friend from a shelter. She says that she heard about the Big House program and thought it would be a perfect fit for St. Tammany. After seeing the successful programs at both Rayburn Correctional and Louisiana Correctional Institute for Women, Gerchow knew that the program would flourish at the St. Tammany Parish jail.
For more information about the program, visit the STPSO Facebook page.