This moving photo is on the New Leash on Life USA website.

This moving photo is on the New Leash on Life USA website.

By Sadie Markley and Len Lear

It is no secret to anyone in the City of Brotherly Love and Sisterly Affection that we have a serious crime problem in the city and a prison system bursting with inmates. Apparently not much has helped reduce the recidivism rate, but Common Please Court Judge Ellen Ceisler, 58, who has lived in both Chestnut Hill and Mt. Airy since 1993, is a board member of an innovative program which just might humanize hardened criminals at the same time it saves the lives of our four-legged friends.

New Leash on Life USA is a new Pennsylvania prison dog-training program that saves the lives of “unadoptable” shelter dogs on the brink of death by training and socializing them to enhance their adoptability while helping prison inmates learn to train and care for the dogs. With New Leash on Life, dogs live with their inmate trainers 24/7, making New Leash dogs highly desirable for adoption and increasing the chance for long-term success for both humans and canines.

“New Leash has an impressive track record of providing opportunities for inmates to turn their lives around while helping to rescue shelter dogs who are in danger of being put down,” Judge Ceisler said recently. “I know firsthand how important programs like New Leash on Life USA are to reducing recidivism and preparing inmates to productively and successfully reenter society at the end of their prison sentences … This is one of the most effective programs we have in our prison systems today.”

Judge Ceisler currently serves in the Civil Division of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia, where she oversees civil trials. Growing up in this area, she was an English major at Temple University and then went on to graduate from Temple Law School. After graduating from law school, Judge Ceisler served as an Assistant District Attorney in Philadelphia, where she specialized in the prosecution of domestic violence crimes. After leaving the DA’s Office, Judge Ceisler became an investigative producer for WCAU-TV News, where she produced investigative series on a wide range of issues, including the mental health and foster care systems, government waste and consumer fraud.

Prior to being elected to the bench eight years ago, Judge Ceisler also served as the Director of the Fraud Investigation Unit for the Philadelphia City Controller’s Office. Judge Ceisler first became involved in New Leash on Life while she was a judge in the court’s criminal division. She eventually became supervising judge of the inmates who were accepted into New Leash on Life in Philadelphia.

The program includes weekly sessions with professional trainers, animal behaviorists and veterinary technicians; job readiness and life skill courses to improve successful reentry and employability for inmates upon parole; internship opportunities for paroled inmates in the animal care field and post-parole support with worksite transition services. Local prison inmates work with the dogs at the “Alternative  and Special Detention Facility,” a separate building on State Road in Northeast Philly which is part of the Philadelphia Prison System, and at Graterford Prison.

“This great program is beneficial to both the inmates and the rescue dogs by granting them both second chances,” said the Mt. Airy judge, who graduated from Cheltenham High School in 1975 and has continuously resided in the Philadelphia area since 1974. “All of the dogs in this program are rescues who were scheduled to be euthanized. By training and caring for the dogs, the inmates feel a sense of purpose and love. Most inmates never had the chance to care for another living thing and be able to feel the positive effects that come with that. It is impossible to find any happiness or warmth within these prisons, but New Leash on Life provides that happiness and warmth that were missing.”

This is the first time for a program like this in Philadelphia, although they are becoming increasingly common in other parts of the country. Two inmates are assigned to one dog, and they learn to work together as they train and care for their dog. According to Emilee Joseph, a spokesperson for New Leash on Life, a program like this for inmates with life sentences will begin for the first time at the end of January or beginning of February at the State Correction Institution Rockview in Bellefonte, Centre County, 12 miles from Penn State University’s main campus. The dogs they train eventually become service dogs for Iraq and Afghanistan War veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and other severe injuries.

Judge Ceisler describes the New Leash on Life program as “exquisite, exceptional and heartwarming.”  She is currently assisting New Leash on Life founder and CEO Marian Marchese with a program that would grant certificates to the graduating inmates as proof that they provided the best training possible. Judge Ceisler referred to Marchese as “the hero who keeps it all together.”

The Mt. Airy resident said that inmates need job training, addiction services and “a sense of hope and  sense of purpose.” New Leash on Life can provide that sense of hope and purpose not only to the inmates but to the rescue dogs as well.

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