Inmates train rescue dogs with ‘Paws of Purpose’ program on Rikers Island

RIKERS ISLAND -- Paws of Purpose is a rehabilitation program on Rikers Island where inmates train rescue dogs.

The inmates, many who committed non-violent crimes, take classes on animal care and grooming, then apply what they've learned to the training.

“We’ve done things, it's not an easy thing to say sorry, but this is a way to give back," said Gabriel Desilva, who was arrested for burglary.

He told PIX11 Tuesday, the program behind bars is helping him in ways the streets couldn't.

“All of us are like a family, we work together and interact with each other," Desilva said.

Edward Ginocchio was arrested for petty larceny.

He wants to get into a dog grooming business when he's released next month.

“This program has helped me immensely,” he said.

The rescue dogs are provided by the Animal Farm Foundation and live in a housing area with the inmates for two months at a time.

Most of them are pit bull mixes.

“Animal Farms' main goal is to end discrimination for both people and dogs and we feel this program rescues both people and dogs,” said Bernice Clifford, Director of Behavior and Training for the organization.

Paws of Purpose started in July 2016.

So far, 85 dogs have been trained by nearly 270 inmates.

“This places allows inmates to show compassion and love to these dogs, it's a side of them you don’t normally see,” said Department of Correction Officer Fitzpatrick.

According to the Department of Correction, Paws of Purpose has benefits beyond the barbed wire fences - it reduces violence on the island and builds social skills among inmates.

“They all have responsibilities, they train the dogs and take them outside, everyday there’s a schedule, and they all work as a team," said Valerie Greisokh , Assistant Commissioner for Adult Programming for the Department of Correction.

At the end of the program, the inmates receive training certificates and life-long skills that are useful once they are released from jail.

“The goal is really to make the transition back home easier to become successful,” Greisokh said.

And as for their four-legged friends, they find new homes.

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