It’s the 1920s, and Philadelphia’s Eastern State Penitentiary is both the biggest and the most expensive public building of the era. New rehabilitation tools are being tested here, such as isolation. A new prisoner is arriving today. He’s been sentenced for murder…of a cat. His name is Pep, and he’s a dog. And the charges were completely trumped up.
In reality, Pep was no killer. He was a labrador retriever that was donated to Eastern State as part of a new inmate therapy program. The story of the killer dog was a cute attempt to add a bit of tongue-in-cheek drama in the newspapers about his donation to the prison. While the news headline got a little out of hand, Pep is often credited with launching the prison pet therapy movement, a reformation method where inmates’ rehabilitation includes the care and training of a pet.
It turns out that these prison pet programs are impactful on both sides of the bars. Many of the dogs used in prison pet therapy were on death row themselves. When paired with inmates, they get a second chance at life.
For the inmates, bonding with a pet while behind bars improves compassion and helps to bridge feelings of mistrust among both staff and others in the prison population.
The Pontiac Tribune reports that despite a 50 percent national average recidivism rate, the Leaders Dogs for the Blind program, which has partnered with prisons since 1939, placing puppies with inmates who train the pups to be service dogs, boasts just 11-13 percent of those that participated in the program return to jail after their release. Reports of hardened criminals weeping when their dogs are trained and given to the individuals needing them are common.
Another program, Canine Cellmates, pairs inmates with dogs in Atlanta’s Fulton County Jail. Like the Leaders Dogs program, the inmates train pups to become working service dogs. The program sees dogs and inmates living side by side for months. The dogs eat in the prisoners’ cells, and training and discipline programs run concurrently for the canines and their temporary owners.
“The dogs actually become therapy dogs in this program, we just don’t tell them that,” said Susan Jacobs Meadows, Canine Cellmate’s executive director.
The inmates at Fulton report a very high level of satisfaction with the program, and the unconditional love given by the dogs has the potential to completely change the course of an inmate’s life.
“She don’t judge me, like people does. I know she loves me. All day. Every day,” said one inmate whose plans are now to become a dog trainer upon his release.
The Prison Pet Partnership program in Gig Harbor’s Washington Corrections Center for Women is also a success story. Through the program, homeless animals are rescued and trained for service for people with disabilities. The inmates assist with the training, and also operate a boarding and grooming facility on the grounds.
“Our program benefits all involved — the animals who are given the chance to lead lives of service, the inmates who learn valuable skills so they may find gainful employment upon release, and the individuals with disabilities who receive well-trained dogs to help increase their level of independence,” the program’s mandate states.
Why are prison pet therapy programs so successful? Prisons, and the circumstances that people into them, are harsh. When puppies bound into an inmate’s arms, not caring who that person is or what they have done, combine with inmates that are giving a meaningful purpose to care for a living creature, knowing that the dog will go on to change someone else’s life, it’s a powerful thing. Prison pet therapy is a win-win situation that helps to rehabilitate prisoners while teaching them vocational skills for the workplace, and social skills for life.
Christopher Zoukis is the author of Federal Prison Handbook: The Definitive Guide to Surviving the Federal Bureau of Prisons, College for Convicts: The Case for Higher Education in American Prisons (McFarland & Co., 2014) and Prison Education Guide (Prison Legal News Publishing, 2016). He can be found online at ChristopherZoukis.com, PrisonEducation.com and PrisonLawBlog.com.