Next Doors: A Jail Program Thinks Big

Sheriff Paul Penzone

Sheriff Paul Penzone wants to create a safe haven for animals while helping to reduce recidivism

Here’s something you might have never thought about before — if someone commits a crime, what happens to their pets?

It might seem like a random concern, but the answer might surprise you. In many cases, pets are part of a crime scene, if not victims of a crime themselves.

At that point, as transactional as it may sound, they become evidence.

“I don’t think most people have a clear understanding of the role law enforcement plays when it comes to investigating crimes against animals,” said Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone. “For a lot of folks, they don’t realize there’s such a direct link between animal abuse and the abuse of people. So law enforcement has that legal obligation to investigate crimes against animals, and when we do, they are deemed to be evidence. Which sounds kind of callous, but that’s just the reality of it.”

So in the case of Maricopa County, that means the Sheriff’s Office has to keep them, often for an extended time — sometimes as long as two years. Many of these pets are victims of trauma and are afraid of human contact. Dogs, cats, reptiles, even horses become wards of the county in these circumstances, and can’t just be re-homed like they might at a regular animal shelter.

Penzone said they get hundreds of animals a year in such a circumstance. Many people would think this is all incredibly inconvenient for MCSO. But Sheriff Penzone sees it differently. He sees an opportunity that could end up being his legacy project.

Right now, these unfortunate pets are housed at the MASH facility — MSCO’s Animal Safe Haven — located in a former jail facility in central Phoenix that was shut down because it wasn’t suitable for humans.

Full disclosure, I got to know Penzone when I worked on his first campaign for Sheriff in 2012. When he was elected in 2016 and first saw the MASH facility, he knew that they could do more with it.

Female inmates from Maricopa County jails were given the opportunity to work in the MASH unit to care for the animals. MSCO found that by providing a connection to the animals, MASH was creating an incentive for participants to have new hope.

“I’ll give you an example of a real-life story, and it was a spontaneous one,” Penzone said. “We brought potential funders in to give them a tour, and there happened to be a female inmate there … and she started to share her story. She was a single mom. And her story started off as ‘Listen, I just wanted to get out of my jail cell, so I signed up for this. Then I started missing the interaction with the animals. Then I started worrying about the animals. And then I felt such a close bond that it hit me — I have two children at home and I’ve never given them the love and attention I’m giving to this animal. And that’s what it takes to be a mother.’

“So if she learned that skill and is able to overcome her challenges, when she goes back home to her children, she understands that’s the priority, and that’s where the sacrifice needs to be to make a sustainable home life for her children.”

The existing program is helping inmates find a new way of thinking, but it’s also helping the animals. In 2019, the MASH program successfully rehabilitated more than 200 animals and led to 180 of them being adopted by new homes.

“We work with them to develop that trust bond again so that when they are adopted out, they can go into a loving home,” Penzone said.

Penzone sees this success and wants to expand on it. So he formed a nonprofit to raise funds for a new MASH unit that would allow for the expansion of the program to new inmate populations — incarcerated mothers, veterans recovering from PTSD, juveniles and those fighting substance abuse.

“It gives the inmates a chance to do something constructive and productive,” he said. “They can learn about care and compassion, they can reduce their stress and anxiety, maybe even adopt an animal, and when they leave here, they leave with a different perspective on what it means to be a responsible person.”

The new brick-and-mortar building is the key, and fundraising for it is well underway — but has a long way to go. Penzone has pledged to get the building built through philanthropic efforts, and once it’s done, MCSO can fund its day-to-day operations. When the pandemic hit, the effort went on the back burner to other priorities and causes. But with a light at the end of the tunnel, Penzone believes now is the time to push for the new MASH facility’s completion.

Penzone’s vision for the facility includes more appropriate kennels for the animals, a dog park, a classroom for inmates to learn how to care for the pets, a vet clinic onsite and a locker room for employees.

“Kind of like the movie — if you build it, they will come,” he said. “If we can fund the bricks and mortar for the facility, I believe we will take this organization and the reputation of MCSO from pink underwear and Tent City to one that is really invested in the reduction of recidivism. Not just talking tough, and not just acting like you care, but putting your money where your mouth is and having a program that gets people out of jail cells and gives them a form of love that is maybe unfamiliar to them.”

Penzone could have just kept doing what had been done for years, but he feels the opportunity is too great to ignore.

“I’ve always been one that wants to get outside of the box, not because I want to do something that’s beyond our mission and unreasonable, or burden the taxpayers. It’s because I truly believe there is a great value that’s being missed,” he said. “And the value is having a program where animals that are your responsibility and inmates that are your responsibility come together and do something you know is special.

“I just think that if we’re going to do something, do something that truly is a legacy and has meaning, and for me just checking the boxes and going ‘OK, we house dogs and we adopt dogs out’ — that’s just showing up. We’re going to be better than just showing up. We’re going to make a difference.”

To learn more about MCSO’s Animal Safe Haven program, visit

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