SREMSKA MITROVICA, Serbia – In Serbia's biggest prison, some inmates' days are filled with joyous barks and happy licks.
The prison in Sremska Mitrovica, northwest of Belgrade, has set up a shelter for stray dogs within the prison compound and tasked a group of inmates with taking care of the animals.
The move is part of a project with the municipal authorities that is designed to boost the inmates' resocialization while also helping solve a big problem in the town.
About a dozen prisoners have helped run the shelter for some 260 dogs since it opened in November, cleaning the facilities, feeding the dogs, walking and training them.
"We do everything we would normally do with our own dogs," said one of the prisoners, Radomir Djakovic. "Working with animals is great, it makes our time here pass much more quickly."
The idea, prison authorities said, is to help the inmates develop empathy through interaction with the animals and learn new skills they can use later in life.
The project is backed by the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, which is aiding reform in the Balkan country as it seeks entry into the European Union following years of crisis in the 1990s.
"This is a huge step forward for Serbia when it comes to work with prisoners," said warden Aleksandar Alimpic. "There is huge potential and it is up to us to make the best of it."
Currently, only inmates serving terms for lesser offenses and who have experience with dogs are working in the shelter. Alimpic said work with more serious offenders among the prison's 2,000 inmates is yet to come.
"The true benefit would be to make a difference with resocialization of the worst offenders," he said.
Set up in a converted former chicken farm with added open space, the dog shelter is located in the semi-open section comprising prisoners who have served at least a quarter of their sentences.
The inmates' duties also include teaching the dogs basic commands under the supervision of professional dog trainers. This earns them certificates that could later help with finding jobs in other shelters or with dog breeders.
Djakovic took a white mongrel called Beki for a walk during a presentation exercise this week. Other dogs barked and jumped on the fences to greet the approaching visitors.
Djakovic said his family has already adopted one dog from the shelter.
"We have grown attached to them," he said. "We would like to see them all find new homes."