A woman in jail, a dog on death row: When Bryon met Olympia, a forsaken pit mix

Bryon Murphy and her dog, Olympia, train with New Leash on Life, a Philadelphia nonprofit that teaches inmates dog-training and grooming skills so they can find work once they leave prison.

Bryon Murphy, 27, knew her training partner was upset.

“She’s a hot mess today,” said Murphy, staring with a smirk at Olympia, her 2-year-old trainee, cellmate, and soon-to-be-adopted rescue dog.

“Last night she ate my shoe, and I was mad. She knew it, even though I kept laughing and smiling at her. It’s all body language with dogs — they know what you’re not saying, just like people.”

As a result of her work with Olympia, a smooth-haired, gray pit bull mix, Murphy is about to leave prison and accept a paid internship with the Women’s Humane Society in Bensalem, work that she was able to secure through training under a program called New Leash on Life, a nonprofit that pairs adoptable shelter dogs with prison inmates.

Under the program, dogs headed for euthanasia are instead rescued and sent to live 24-7 with prisoners in their cells; once trained, the animals leave prison for adoption, while the inmates leave for jobs at local shelters, vet hospitals, city agencies, and animal groomers.

New Leash on Life pairs female inmates with dogs in a 12-week program at the Alternative and Special Detention Center at 8101 State Rd. If they are eligible — because they are due to leave prison — the women learn to care for and love their dogs while training them, preparing themselves for a job after serving their sentences.

Meghan Ross, a graduate of the program, is now working full time and said the program “helped me realize my dreams.” Ross now works at an appliance store in South Philadelphia and is expecting a child.

“It was one time my mom was really proud of me,” she added.

Susan and Quinlena, two female inmates in the class who declined to give their last names, were paired with Denali, a stubborn and playful Lab mix with just 35 more days to graduation.

Camera icon Dreamlite Photography
Susan and Denali train with New Leash on Life, a nonprofit that teaches inmates dog-training and grooming skills so they can find work once they leave prison.

“He’s with us all the time, all day and all night,” said Susan.

“We get up at 7, take him out to go in the yard, bring him back for class, crate him when we’re in training. I’m learning a lot about animal care and about myself,” she said.

“Some of us grew up with dogs, but some didn’t, and it’s a great opportunity to rehabilitate yourself for job readiness, for communications, and how to deal with conflict.”

Classes on Tuesdays focus on animal grooming and behavior; Wednesdays and Thursdays on life skills, resume preparation, mock interviews, computer training, and even anger management; Fridays are for leash training and other work outside.

At its beginning, New Leash on Life held classes for men in prisons but was given an added boost from grants earmarked for female prisoners from the Transition Network, a network of professional women in Center City. The Transition Network’s Giving Circle is currently raising extra funds for New Leash on Life.

“The Giving Circle component is a way of giving back, but more personally than handing over a check to some charity,” Transition Network Philadelphia chapter member Susan Vineberg wrote in an email. For the Giving Circle, “we ask for a $200 donation to be a voting member, but any amount is accepted. That’s when women will decide if they want to become more involved by researching grants and doing on-site visits.”

Murphy smiles more and has blossomed with confidence, as has her canine.

“When Olympia first came here, she was shy, but she warmed up quickly. She wouldn’t eat out of her bowl due to stress,” she said, as they practice “return, reward, release” with treats.

“I’ve been here eight months, and I haven’t talked to my parents in a year. So I tell Olympia all my secrets and she’s really helped me,” Murphy added.

“Now, I can do what my dad always advised: make eye contact, wear the right clothes to an interview. There’s no trying, there’s only doing. I just follow instructions: I give her commands, discipline, and structure.”

As graduation day approaches, many of the women no longer like to keep the dogs in their kennels.

“Because we’re in jail, I know how that feels,” Murphy said.

As a result of the New Leash on Life training, Murphy and her classmates are now eligible to work at places such as the PSCPA, animal control for the city, PennVet Working Dog Center, Providence Animal Center in Media, and Emancipet. These women are members of the fourth class of female inmates from New Leash on Life since 2016 and are set to graduate May 15.

Then, they’ll all leave prison — women and dogs — on May 16.

In addition, said Rob Rosa, associate vice president of prison programs for New Leash on Life, “Many of them will go on to become advocates for animals for the rest of their lives.”

Camera icon Dreamlite Photography
Rokker and Oxford train with New Leash on Life, a Philadelphia nonprofit that teaches inmates dog-training and grooming skills so they can find work once they leave prison.