Animals behind bars

There’s a long and storied history of blending animals into the world’s prison populations. Possibly the best known U.S. prisoner to interact with other species while behind bars was portrayed in the movies by the late actor Burt Lancaster: Robert...


The program launched when a group of cats, which were scheduled to be eradicated from a nearby island, were relocated to prison grounds. The prison already housed a makeshift feline program in which the inmates hung sheets from their cell’s bars to allow the cats to climb inside in order to share their rations, but there was nothing organized. Animal activists, instrumental in moving the island cats, decided to help, and with the permission of the prison’s management, raised funds to provide veterinary care and adequate food for the prison’s feline population.

Reports say Pollsmoor’s warden and staff have supported the effort in many ways, including providing some of the funds to keep the effort up and running. Prisoners who embraced the prison cats say they have worked to increase acceptance of the animals among the inmates and developed a love that goes beyond prison walls: more than one inmate has expressed a desire to take his cat with him when he leaves custody, and both prison violence and recidivism are down.

Selective participation

Dr. Carole Lieberman, a forensic psychiatrist and expert witness who currently serves as an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at UCLA/Neuropsychiatric Institute, has worked with crimes ranging from pedophilia to mass murder. Lieberman believes that inmates participating in any program involving animals should be carefully evaluated before being granted entry.

She cautions that “Prisoners who are psychopaths and/or violent are likely to have had a history of hurting animals as children, from pulling the legs off spiders to killing cats; they would need to be watched carefully if any animal is entrusted to them.”

But Lieberman says efforts at integrating animals into prison systems are valuable, both in terms of helping to rehabilitate and lessening the incidence of prison violence and inappropriate behavior. In addition, she says, interaction with animals on a daily basis can be therapeutic by helping the prisoner learn how to give and receive affection.

“The pets provide unconditional love for them, which is something most prisoners have lacked since childhood. Prisoners also learn how to take care of another living being, something most are very poor at. When their (pet) nurturing...gets an affectionate response, the prisoners are positively reinforced to continue such behavior, and hopefully extend it to humans,” Lieberman says.

Thundering across the plains, padding across the cell

Possibly the most satisfying part of programs that integrate animals and inmates isn’t simply that inmates have a chance to pull themselves up and change their own lives, although that is the ultimate goal. It’s also that it’s the humane thing to do in a civilized society. These programs provide the animals with an alternative to starvation and deprivation or eventual euthanasia. One program in which wild mustangs were captured, gentled and re-homed saved hundreds of horses and helped prisoners regain a sense of dignity and responsibility.

Administered by large animal veterinarian and college professor, Don Hoglund, the crusade to save the horses of the New Mexico-based White Sands Missile Range was originally spearheaded by U.S. politician and diplomat, Bill Richardson. A former presidential cabinet member, congressman and governor of New Mexico, Hoglund credits Richardson with implementing the idea of saving the horses after viewing the success of a similar Colorado program.

“Our objective was to handle the horses humanely and teach inmates how to back away from (their) energy,” says Hoglund.

Hoglund’s New Mexico-based roundup lasted from 1987 to 1992, when funding dried up. It’s credited with saving hundreds of formerly free-ranging horses from dying of starvation and disease in a dangerous setting. Today, many prisons are discovering not only can they help inmates by integrating animals into prison life, but they can also give hope to others with programs that train service animals.

Lori Stevens, Executive Director and Founder of Patriot Paws, says her nonprofit works to train service dogs for wounded veterans all over the country. The trained dogs go to men and women suffering from everything from loss of limbs to post-traumatic stress disorder.

“We placed our 50th dog in November and are getting ready to expand with career training for the inmates,” Stevens says of Patriot Paws’ partnership with the Texas Dept. of Corrections.

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