Serbian prisoners and dogs give each other a new lease on life

By Agence France-Presse

Dusan and Cupko both lost their way in life before finding themselves behind bars in Serbia's largest prison.

Prisoners at a Serbia prison are teaming up with stray dogs to prepare for a second chance in life (AFP / MANILA BULLETIN) Prisoners at a Serbia prison are teaming up with stray dogs to prepare for a second chance in life (AFP / MANILA BULLETIN)

Now the pair -- one a 49-year-old inmate and the other a shaggy mutt -- are hoping to leave together thanks to a programme that matches prisoners with stray dogs and prepares both for a second chance.

The social reintegration scheme, in which inmates spend two hours a day teaching the dogs basic commands, is a novel approach to incarceration in a region whose jails are better known for being among Europe's most overcrowded.

Working daily with Cupko touched something "primordial" in him, said inmate Dusan Steric, reaching down to ruffle the black fur of the dog whose name translates as "Shaggy" in Serbian.

"It has been the most beautiful dream, to work here and work with the dogs," he added, after a training session with eight other prisoners and dogs in a grassy patch on the grounds of the men's jail in Sremska Mitrovica.

Since the initiative was started two years ago, some 80 inmates have passed through 10-week training.

The goal is to get the dogs ready for adoption by the public, but also to reduce reoffending rates by preparing convicts for employment in places like animal shelters or zoos.

  • Straining at the leash -

Serbia's prisons are in the top 10 most overcrowded in Europe, with an average of 109.2 inmates per 100 places available, according to a 2018 Council of Europe report.

In 2015, the pan-European rights body also reported "inhuman and degrading treatment" in some jails.

The Serbian social reintegration scheme sees inmates spend two hours a day teaching stray dogs basic commands
The Sremska Mitrovica programme -- the only one of its kind in the Western Balkans -- initially began because the northwestern town was struggling to cope with a large stray dog population and asked the prison to build a dog shelter on its property.

With help from the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe, the prison decided to turn the situation into something symbiotic.

Now hundreds of dogs of all shapes, sizes and colours live at the kennels, yelping with delight as the prisoners approach to feed them, clean their cages or take them out for a training session.