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New British prison has no bars on windows and pet therapy; so how good is pet therapy?

Therapy for prisoners through training dogs at correctional facilities

A brand-new prison in Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, HMP Five Wells, will seem, to some, like a holiday camp. It does not sound like a prison. Everyone calls everyone else by their first name including the prison warden. There are no bars on the windows and the men can help their kids with their homework. They also have pet therapy. This prompted me to investigate the benefits of pet therapy to prisoners.

Therapy for prisoners through training dogs at correctional facilities

Therapy for prisoners through training dogs at correctional facilities. Photo: David Bittton.

It seems that the idea of pet therapy as applied to prisoners started in the mid-1980s. Spain appears to be a leader in this field. You can go to Google Scholar which lists all the available research projects on what the experts call prison animal programs (PAPs) and take your pick as to their findings.

I am disappointed with the findings. Research projects in the early 2000 appear to me to have concluded that there was little hard evidence to support the popular viewpoint that PAPs were genuinely beneficial to inmates.

They are popular and ‘perceived’ as being beneficial but in terms of hard science it is difficult to pin these benefits down. There appears to be no doubt that the presence of therapy dogs in a prison lift the mood and makes the place more interesting. This mood enhancement of itself may be beneficial to the inmates’ well-being which in turn may assist them in their rehabilitation and thereafter reintroduction into society.

I picked on a more recent study because I wanted to understand how the experts currently perceive PAPs. A study published in The Journal of Forensic Science dated February 10, 2022 with the title: “I feel happier in myself with the dogs”: the perceived impact of a prison animal programme for well-being, identified three themes in their findings.

They refer to these themes as:

  • A safe space for emotional experience;
  • An opportunity to connect and
  • Being human.

These narratives, they say, offer a range of perceived benefits which illustrate the potential of dog-based PAPs for enhancing well-being and consistency with desistance goals (not re-offending).

The above topics sound vague to me and their conclusion on the value of these programs is that the research contributes to the limited literature on PAPs in the UK and that their findings “illustrate that even short-term interactions with dogs can be impactful and provide evidence for other practitioners about how this approach may be used with individuals with complex mental health needs”.

Once again, I have not personally advanced my knowledge of how they work.

We know that children with autism, for example, can benefit by interacting with animals. My understanding of this form of therapy for these children is that it helps them to connect and better communicate with others. It also helps to improve self-esteem in that they can connect and feel I guess integrated into society.

Perhaps one benefit of PAPs to inmates with mental health issues (and there are many prisoners with mental health issues) is that it improves self-esteem and makes them happier.

RELATED: Another UK prison employs animals to benefit the health of their inmates

One major underlying purpose of these programs is to reduce reoffending after inmates are released. To achieve this, they want to ensure that inmates are more able to integrate into normal society on their release.

There is another recent study dated January 8, 2022 from America in which they analysed prison-based dog training programs in four Midwestern prisons. They say that there were “perceived” facility-wide benefits and personal benefits as reported at all four locations. The summary is very unspecific and vague.

My conclusion is that the popular feeling is that pet therapy is beneficial to inmates particularly those with mental health issues but there’s very little if any hard research on the topic which supports these programs from a scientific point of view.

I welcome alternative viewpoints. I also personally believe that PAPs are worthwhile. Perhaps I need to take a more general viewpoint. We know how popular cats and dogs are and we know how much pleasure cats and dogs provide to their human caregivers. This is beneficial to these people. That general form of benefit needs to be recognised in the context of pet therapy for prison inmates.