New program brings in dogs as therapy at Gwinnett jail

GWINNETT COUNTY, Ga. — More and more jails across Georgia are bringing dogs in to be trained by inmates. A new Gwinnett County program is going a step further by bringing in dogs that are the ones who are helping educate the inmates.

Deep inside the Gwinnett County Detention center is Cell Block H, the mental health ward for male inmates. Normally it is a bleak setting, And so is Cell Block D, the women's ward. But not on the day volunteer Charles Baranowski comes with his two Dalmatians.

The dogs do a few tricks, but mainly just soak in the attention. Alongside Baranowski is mental health specialist Christy Simpson, who teaches the group lessons the inmates never learned on the outside.

"They live right now, right in the moment. This is why they can be so calm so quiet. So when they get in a fight, that's it, it's over with," Baranowski said.

"Self-forgiveness is huge," Simpson said.

For inmate David Hawkins, that hits home immediately.

"A lot of things I have done, I haven't forgiven myself for," Hawkins said. "They were in a really bad place and they made a lot of obvious improvements."

So Hawkins thinks maybe he can, too. The program has been underway for just eight months.

"We know that incarceration can be an exceptionally stressful time for any inmate, but especially those inmates who experience mental health issues," Simpson said.

There are life lessons, but the visit is mainly about stress relief, laughter and bringing smiles where smiles are hard to find.

"It's made my whole being better just for today," Hawkins said.

Jail officials say the program has improved the cell blocks because the inmates have to be on good behavior in between visits to be able to see the dogs.