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Women Offender Programs and Issues

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Pet Facilitated Therapy in Correctional Institutions

THERAPEUTIC ASPECTS OF PET IN AN INSTITUTIONAL SETTING

B. Interviews - Lexington Correctional Center

This medium security institution has a population of 800; currently there are approximately 20 inmates involved in the program with a growing waiting list. The Friends for Folks program is extremely popular at Lexington and even those who are not involved are very excited about it. This program train dogs to assist the elderly and the disabled. Once trained, the dogs are passed on to senior citizens and nursing homes. The inmates have trained some of the dogs to assist those in a wheelchair to pick up dropped items while other dogs assist the hearing impaired to alert the owner when the telephone or doorbell rings. Overall, the presence of the animals has generated more communication among the inmates and generally relaxed the mood of the institution.

The co-ordinator of Friends For Folks, Sergeant Jack Cottrell and three inmates participating in the program were interviewed for this project and provided an invaluable contribution. The inmates were very open and enthusiastic throughout the interview. Please see Appendix II for a list of questions posed during this interview.

James

James is presently serving two life sentences and has been in this program for 6 years. He decided to participate because he had "nothing to do" and now feels that he is not wasting his time. His request to participate was granted one year after of submitting his application. Since beginning this program, he has acquired dog grooming and health skills from the classes he has attended. He also learned more grooming and training skills from reading on his own and he shares his knowledge with others. His success in the program has encouraged him to complete his GED and take writing courses at the college level. In short, his success in the program and subsequent increase in his self-confidence has given him the push he needed to pursue other goals.

The program has also affected him emotionally. With his dog, he finds he is able to express his feelings more often and not feel others would see that as a sign of weakness. Prior to his involvement in this program, James felt he had nothing to lose. Since good behaviour is a prerequisite for participation in the program, there is a tangible difference in the way he deals with his anger. Now when he gets frustrated, he calms down to think and rationalize his thoughts because the wrong actions can cost him his ability to participate in the program. The greatest change James can see in himself since he started this program is his ability to communicate. Before, he preferred to be by himself but now with the help of his dog, he feels more at ease when socializing with other inmates.

Stephen

Stephen is James’ cellmate. He is presently serving a commuted life sentence. He explained how profoundly the program has affected him. He now realizes that there is more to life than just himself, that there are others to consider. He used to be heavily involved with drugs and truly believes that if it weren’t for the dogs, he would be dead now. He also has a reason to stay clean; if he were ever found with drugs during his involvement in the program, he would be dismissed. He believes his problem solving skills and his interactions with staff have improved through his dealing with dogs. He also agreed with James that animals provide a safe outlet for releasing emotions in a healthy way and his outlook on life is more positive - now he has a reason to live. Prior to the program, drugs and alcohol dominated his life. Through the program, he has learned to be responsible for himself and others. Although he cannot change his past and the life he took, he is now training dogs to help others; trying to contribute to society as much as he can. . Inmates receive a certificate of completion after the program; however, it is not equivalent to that of a licensed groomer. Stephen also believes that caring and training for other animals such as horses and birds can foster the same therapeutic and vocational benefits as working with dogs.

Stephen explained that during the training sessions, the dogs are not rewarded with treats but with love and affection. He states that now his dog is his first priority and he has become better tempered as a result of working with it. Stephen echoed the common feeling that it is extremely difficult to part with the animals he has trained. However, he noted that it helps when the owners keep in touch through occasional correspondence

Darryl

Darryl is serving a 250-year sentence. He feels the experience he has received from the program benefits himself and others. He describes the process of training dogs as "soothing". Prior to making the decision to participate, Darryl explained that he was upset and angry all the time because of the loneliness he felt and anger towards himself about his mistakes. As a result of the program, he feels he has been able to constructively release the negative emotions that he had built up inside. Darryl couldn’t emphasize enough the dramatic impact this program has had on him. He explained that now he looks forward to waking up in the morning and living. He states that the program has taught him about respect: to treat others, including dogs, the way you want to be treated. He even has become more communicative with staff.

Darryl mentioned that the particular unit he is in has an "upper class" status because of their involvement in the program. Only 20 inmates out of the 160 inmates in his unit are directly involved but the impact of the program affects everyone in the unit. Each inmate wants to see the dog, pet him, play with him or walk him. He explained his dogs have assisted him in breaking the race barrier when he communicates with the other inmates and now his friends are from various cultures. He was enthusiastic in discussing possible work with other types of animals, particularly farm animals. He stated that the animals are "as close as you can get to freedom".

Sergeant Cottrell

Sergeant Cottrell also shared his views of the Friends For Folks program. Prior to his involvement with this program, he worked with police dogs, training them to assist in searches for body evidence and narcotics at crime scenes. Although he has long worked with animals, he was cynical about the usefulness of animal programs for inmates. He has since changed his mind after witnessing the tremendous benefits it has on inmates, staff, community and the animals, as the ones that are brought into the programs are unwanted and would likely have been euthanized. They now have brighter futures as assistance dogs to certain people (i.e. senior citizens, physically handicapped, hearing impaired) in the community. He has noticed that inmates are better tempered and have been getting along better with the staff.