Next to the inmate’s orange shirt, Eva’s dark silhouette was even more striking. He ran his finger along a white stripe that started at her nose and faded to black by the center-most point of her blocky head. They both seemed small on the floor of her kennel, his back against the wall and her chest against his knees. This was one of many moments just like it, witnessed and captured at Second Chance Canine Adoption Shelter at the Jamesville Correctional Facility. Most of the dogs currently living at the shelter are strays from the city of Syracuse. Their past is not known. Some come in severely emaciated, injured or both. The inmates are responsible for exercising, feeding, bathing, cleaning up after and socializing the dogs. The goal is to get them emotionally, socially and physically ready to be adopted into forever homes.
Before Ryan and I arrived, I had to confront my own ideas about what or who I would face while photographing this program. When it comes to the topic of incarceration and prisoners’ rights, I must admit, I am far from objective. In fact, while getting my Master’s in Social Work, an entire semester was devoted to learning about who was locked in prison cells in this country and why. Recidivism. Reentry. Rehabilitation. It all matters. To me. I believe that the majority of people incarcerated are inherently good. They are good people who did bad things and they may or may not deserve the sentence they’ve been given. Sometimes you’re born with your head barely above water and you spend the rest of your life kicking to stay afloat.
Me? I was born well above the waterline and had a pretty spectacular view, actually. I grew up in a quiet neighborhood in a white house with green trim. It sat on a hill and in the winter when the trees were bare, I could see Lake Ontario from my living room. We didn’t lock our doors. My parents came to my soccer games. My teachers did, too. Any stressor in my life was met with support from all directions. And while I'd like to take full credit for the sufficiently successful, independent, half-hippie/half-professional that I’ve become, my path was paved with privilege.
Even though my upbringing was sewn with the threads of every imaginable protective factor, as a high school and even college student, I still broke laws. I drove too fast. I drank underage. Sometimes I combined those things and more. My brain, like everyone I spent time with at the age of 17, was laced with insecurity, self-discovery and poisonous, powerful hormones. At the risk of sounding dramatic, now that I’m tapping into my teenage self, I very easily could have ended up making a terrible mistake that even my town-board serving parents couldn’t have saved me from. Sometimes all that separates those on the inside with those on the outside, is luck.
My intention is not to minimize criminal or harmful behavior, but instead to humanize those who’ve been accused and convicted of it. They are human after all - and what is one of the most beautiful aspects of being human? The ability to choose. Left or right. Dark or light. Despite what choice or series of choices resulted in their current situation, the men we photographed were choosing something bigger than themselves that day - to positively impact another life. They were choosing to help these creatures who’ve been forgotten, abandoned, abused and ignored, much like themselves, and to show them that there is a way back from a life of pain.
What you should know about these photos is that nothing was staged. The inmates were not directed or coached to act in any certain way. We stayed at the shelter for three hours and simply documented exactly what we saw. This is the authentic story of the inmates and the dogs in their care. This is the story of second chances.
Special thanks to Cuse Pit Crew for connecting the dots to make this happen - and of course for all that they do for our community and our four-legged friends.
And lastly, thanks to dogs everywhere for never judging and always loving.