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 Franklin Stroud.

Known as The Birdman of Alcatraz, Stroud was a killer incarcerated in his early days at Leavenworth, although he eventually moved to Alcatraz. Originally imprisoned following the slaying of a nonpaying client in 1909, Stroud worked as a pimp and was known for his violent temper. While in prison he murdered a security guard and had a well-deserved reputation as one of the most vicious of inmates. Stroud spent much of his life sentence (commuted from death) in solitary confinement but moved to a prison hospital for his final years.

Stroud’s nickname came from his prison-acquired reputation as an ornithologist and expert at raising birds. According to his biographers, the inmate began keeping birds after stumbling upon some injured sparrows on prison grounds. The story—which some scholars dispute—is that he nursed them to health and started a profitable business buying, raising and selling canaries, but those birds were housed at Leavenworth, not Alcatraz. Stroud became famous for his knowledge as a birder, but left them behind when relocated. He died in 1963, still in prison.

Early origins

Earl Strimple, a doctor of veterinary medicine and pioneer in regards to integrating animals into prisons, wrote in the American Behavioral Scientist that the benefits of having animal programs in prison settings include, “lower recidivism rates and concomitant lower costs to the state.” He quotes the 1997 claims of the superintendent of the Sanger B. Powers Correctional Center in Oneida, Wis., that of 68 inmates involved in the animal program who were released, none had reoffended. Compare those numbers to a comprehensive prison recidivism rate of approximately two-thirds at that time, and the program’s benefits soon become obvious.

Strimple says the first substantial animal therapy program in a U.S. prison system launched in 1975 at an Ohio-based mental hospital for the criminally insane. That early effort revealed that patients involved in daily contact with animals “required half the amount of medication, had reduced violence, and [did not attempt suicide].” Strimple observes that a separate ward, operated without the integration of any animals, had the opposite experience.

Soon, he says, other programs launched in U.S. prisons. Notably, a program integrated into a women’s prison in Washington State helped provide therapy dogs to the disabled, and Strimple says he personally observed inmates feeding feral cats of their own volition at a Lorton, Va., prison facility. Working with a pet food company, he was able to secure donated food and coach those inmates on nurturing the animals in a healthy environment. Strimple credited the program with assisting the men who were released in gaining confidence and the ability to obtain and hold jobs on the outside.

The integration of animals, both domesticated and wild, has now become a widely accepted practice in many of the country’s prison systems. Experts say the same holds true on a global scale. Caring for stray and feral cats, for example, has been implemented in prison systems from Switzerland to Thailand. And prisoners from at least one U.S.-based prison were used to help foster felines that were evacuated from the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

Feral cats help rescue inmates

Experts often speak about how well the majority of inmates respond to having animals under their care. One of the most often observed benefits of a prison-animal program are the warm bonds that inmates form with the animals. And, while training programs are well documented as beneficial in prison settings, even casual relationships seem to bring out the best in prisoners. Like the facility at Lorton, Pollsmoor Prison in Cape Town, South Africa (famous for holding Nelson Mandela) is home to a thriving feral cat colony. Pollsmoor staff have seen some of that country’s most notorious prisoners work through childhood issues of abuse and abandonment.

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.

Stevens says Patriot Paws prefers Labrador Retrievers ages six weeks to 18 months. Labs are known for their intelligence, trainability and affable personalities. The charity’s programs are currently implemented only at women’s correctional facilities.

“They have a lot of continuous education programs for the men, but very few for females, so that’s how we got started,” she says.

Stevens says it takes about 18 months to fully train a dog. While training on prison grounds, the dogs live in a special unit with their handlers, with each cell having a kennel to hold the dog, then-currently assigned to the inmate. Inmates are carefully screened and chosen for these assignments and only the ones who have demonstrated exceptional behavior are chosen. Stevens says it’s a competitive billet for the inmates.

“There’s a long waiting list for the inmates to get into the Patriot Paws Training Program,” she says.

The dogs rotate through to each inmate as they train so all inmates in the program have a stake in each animal’s success. Graduation, Stevens says, is bittersweet, but when the veteran for whom the dog is training comes to meet his or her new companion and work with the animal before heading home, the rewards are, as Stevens says, “definitely worth it.”

Another vote for animals in prison

Dr. Frederic Reamer, a professor of social work at Rhode Island College School of Social Work, and a member of the State Parole Board since 1992, has seen plenty of inmates pass through parole hearing doors. Some of those prisoners have participated in animal-related programs in his state’s prison system, and Reamer says those efforts are making a visible difference: “I’ve seen it firsthand, have interviewed the inmates and observed the dogs interact with the prisoners.”

He says a program that originated in Massachusetts, the National Education Assistance Dog Service (NEADS), also known as the “prison pup program”, which specializes in training dogs for the deaf or disabled, has been successful throughout New England. On its website, NEADS says inmates train service dogs in half the time it takes to similarly prepare an animal in a foster home.

Reamer says that in a clinical sense many inmates struggle with attachment issues. Animal programs allow them to develop healthy attachments with other creatures, which he says is therapeutic.

“They actually get to experience a relationship,” he says, acknowledging that while the relationship is not with another human being, interacting with an animal provides a healthy attachment they can strive to replicate when they leave prison.

Taxpayers spend billions to remove offenders from society, but mounting costs have proven prohibitive and the future looks even gloomier. With many rehabilitation programs currently in the prisons either proving busts or too costly to operate, the relatively inexpensive and humane option of integrating animals into appropriate prison settings can be one way state and federal institutions help society work towards resolving this issue without breaking the bank.


A 12-year veteran of police work, Carole Moore has served in patrol, forensics, crime prevention and criminal investigations, and has extensive training in many law enforcement disciplines. She welcomes comments at