Pet therapy, as we have been exploring on this forum has a number of applications for health, well-being and rehabilitation. One section of the population that is in need of rehabilitative programs are prisoners – more and more prisons are introducing some form of pet therapy to inmates. This has been a somewhat controversial move – most detractors feel that allowing the prisoners to interact with pets is taking away from the punitive purpose of prison, while supporters are happy that pet therapy can bring meaning and responsibility into the lives of prisoners.
Whatever your view is on the subject, pet therapy is looking like being introduced into further correctional facilities. Take for example this recent article about the Suffolk Sheriff’s Department, who are looking at introducing a pet therapy program. Like many other such programs, this one would only be available to low-risk inmates and would involve them training and looking after pets which would be made available for adoption by a charity organization. As the Sheriff’s office points out, the aim is to rehabilitate prisoners so that they are not seen back again once released.It is hoped that the dog training will give prisoners a sense of responsibility outside of themselves and a new set of skills which could lead to employment later on.
Programs involving animals in prison are different to Animal Assisted Therapy (AAT) that is often used with the elderly for example. In prisons there is often a training element involved and prisoners are vetted based on the nature of their crimes. PAPs (prison-based animal programs) often do not involve prisoners interacting with a clinician as AAT programs do.
Interaction with pets provides many physiological and psychosocial benefits which have been well documented in research centered around the elderly and ill patients. Their calming effect and ability to encourage socialization translate well for lower-risk prison inmates who may have a raft of psychological issues leading to anti-social behavior.
In research conducted by Gennifer Furst of William Paterson University, the current literature on PAPs was looked at and it was found that prisons are generally adopting these programs to introduce vocational skills, as a therapeutic program, as a way for the prison to make money and to do a community service (such as where prisoners look after animals which are then adopted out). Studies showed that prisoners involved in the PAPs tended to become more cooperative and that they learnt self-control while genuinely being concerned for the welfare of the animals.
Whether you view allowing PAPs in prisons as a ‘soft’ approach to incarceration or not, the fact remains that many of these prisoners will be released into the community again one day. If participating in PAPs teaches empathy, self-control and vocational skills that may make it less likely that those released re-offend, surely that is a good thing? A gap in the research that needs to be looked at is follow-up with the prisoners who participate in the programs – what happens to them once they are released and how many re-offend?