In 2016, the California City Correctional Facility launched a pilot program that paired inmates, many of them convicted of violent offenses, with rescue dogs. Under the supervision of volunteers from Marley’s Mutts, a California dog rescue group, the inmates worked together to train the dogs so that, at the end of the two- to three-month program, they could be adopted by forever homes. Known as Pawsitive Change, the idea proved wildly successful and has since expanded to other prisons around California.
“The inmates want so badly to get into the program,” says LA-based photographer Shayan Asgharnia, who spent several months documenting the training sessions in 2017. “It gives them a sense of purpose.” Asgharnia, best known for his psychologically acute celebrity portraits, maintains a sideline in photographing rescue dogs, which is how he first heard about Pawsitive Change. After receiving permission to shoot inside the prison, he began driving two hours to and from California City every Tuesday.
Inside the prison walls, he witnessed a series of remarkable transformations. “When the dogs come in, they’re like some of the inmates,” Asgharnia says. “I remember one that was just terrified of everything—super skittish, wasn’t able to cope with any kind of human. It went in there, and with patient training and love, those inmates were able to turn the situation around.” Training the dogs allows—in fact, requires—the men to express their emotions in ways normally discouraged behind bars.
Some of Asgharnia’s most powerful photographs were taken after the “graduation” ceremony in which the inmates have to say goodbye to their dogs. “These guys are living with them for 10 weeks, 12 weeks, and have to let them go,” he says. “It’s heartbreaking.” Although most dogs come from high-kill shelters in the US, some have been rescued, via Marley’s Mutts, from as far away as China and Asgharnia’s native Iran. When it comes to inmates selected for the program, the only disqualifying factors are convictions for sex offenses or violence against animals.
In addition to improving their interpersonal skills, Pawsitive Change provides inmates with valuable career skills—a number of participants go on to work as professional dog trainers after their release. “I do believe people have the capacity to change,” Asgharnia says. “The prison system is deeply flawed, but I’m thankful this program is giving people a second chance. Because nobody else is doing that.”
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