The human environment in any prison can be extremely frigid and tense, and if the idea is to return to the right path of society the men and women that have somehow lost their way, isn’t this environment completely counterproductive for what we want to achieve? In some cases, inmates can spend one or even two decades confined in a cell, living a monotonous life and not really working to fix the psychological issues and traumas that are the real origin of the problem. So which strategies can be applied in these situations that can help with the mental healing of these persons?
The answer is more obvious than one may think, and also way cuter than expected: it turns out that giving inmates an animal for them to foster and care for can solve many problems for both of them. Having a dog under your custody gives you a big sense of responsibility, enhances your tenderness, and suddenly, just like that, beautiful emotions like compassion and love can arise, as if uplifted by an angel, -a fluffly, cute, huggable angel. And if that wasn’t enough, knowing that there is another living creature that needs you gives you a higher self-esteem, by making you feel useful and valuable.
There are some prisons in the United States that have already applied some programs of the sort, throwing fantastic results. An early example of this is the Prison Pet Partnership Program, which began in 1981 at the Washington Correctional Center for Women. It was an initiative of Sister Pauline Quinn, and it consisted in the idea that inmates would reach out to help others by training special dogs that would later assist a disabled person. Since then, more than 500 dogs were paired with handicapped or disabled persons. This program was one of the ten finalists for Innovations in State and Local Government recognized by the Ford Foundation and the John F. Kennedy School of Business at Harvard University, in the year 1986. The goal was to place 60 dogs with recipients annually, with at least 25% of them being Service/Seizure or Therapy animals.
Studies have proven that humans need the simple and honest love and acceptance that a pet can give, and the animals need to be loved in return. It is no news that the bond between a dog and is owner can bring a lot of satisfaction and happiness to both of them, contributing with the mental and physical well-being of both parts involved.
Another fantastic example is the experience that has taken place at the maximum security prison in Lancaster, California, more recently during the year of 2014. Five dogs were rescued from a high-kill shelter in Los Angeles and were assigned to a group of inmates that had the job of training them in order to increase their chances of getting adopted. The program is called “Paws for Life”, in which inmates participated voluntarily. Many of them explained that they could relate to the difficult situation of the dogs, and that they felt special by being able to offer these animals a second opportunity in life. It made them feel hopeful, and it even encouraged them to dream of a second chance for themselves too.
Fourteen inmates were then selected to train these 5 lucky dogs who stayed at the prison during the summer for a 12 week program. Having the dogs around inside the boundaries of the prison makes the human environment a lot more amiable, individuals are more prone to start conversations between themselves, resulting in a surprising decrease on group confrontations. Out of the five dogs, four were rapidly adopted, so after this first successful experience, the program “Paws for Life” continued with ten more dogs and higher expectations. This kind of pet-prisoner partnership has proven to decrease depression levels in the inmates, stress and other negative emotions. Just the action of petting the dog can help a person relax and feel a certain amount of satisfaction, which leads to a happier life.
Crystal Wood, the Captain at the prison in Lancaster explained the benefits of the program by saying that “A lot of times in this setting it’s so depressing and you don’t show emotion…feelings and when you have a creature that gives you unconditional love and licks you and doesn’t care – you see men who’ve been in prison for 20 and 30 years break down and cry just for the compassion and the humanity. It’s just generally made the yard a calmer place”