Human-Animal Interaction in a Prison Setting: Impact on Criminal Behavior, Treatment Progress, and Social Skills

Article excerpt


This quasi-experimental field study evaluated the effects of a forensic human-animal interaction (HAI) program on the criminal behavior of prison inmates. The study assessed the impact of the HAI program using between-subject methods and analyses. A total of 48 male inmates participated in the research by allowing researchers access to their institutional files and completing self-report measures. In general, it was hypothesized the HAI program would result in positive behavioral and psychosocial outcomes for inmates. Dependent measures included the frequency of institutional infractions, inmate treatment level within the prison's therapeutic community, and social skills. Analyses compared two groups of inmates in a pretest-posttest repeated-measures design, comparing a Treatment group with a Control group. Results indicated that inmates in the Treatment group evidenced statistically significant improvements in these dependent measures in comparison to the Control group.

KEYWORDS: Human-Animal Interaction, Criminal Rehabilitation, Social Sensitivity, Correctional Psychology

Incarceration rates are at an all-time high in the U.S. with 6.9 million people involved in the criminal justice system, either incarcerated in jails or prisons or in the community on probation or parole (Bureau of Justice Statistics, BJS, 2004). It is estimated that 95% of those incarcerated in state correctional facilities are eventually released back into the community (BJS, 2004). The change of the role of incarceration in the United States in the 1970's from providing rehabilitation for inmates to incapacitation and containment (Ogloff, 2002) has resulted in a drastic reduction in psychological treatment and rehabilitation programs for inmates (Haney, 1997).

The prevalence of mental illness among incarcerated inmates is estimated to be as high as 15%, compared to the prevalence rate of 2-3% in the normal population (Lamb & Weinberger, 1998). In contrast, relatively few offenders receive treatment while incarcerated-only 36% according to the BJS (1999). In addition to clinical disorders, inmates often exhibit psychosocial deficits, including poor social skills and emotion regulation.

These deficits may be a function of both poor functioning prior to incarceration and a loss of skills while incarcerated. The latter is consistent with literature on prisonization, a process in which inmates take on the customs and culture of a correctional facility (Clemmer, 1940; Peat & Winfree, 1992). The prison culture includes the rejection of societal norms, including social norms. Perhaps the most notable investigation of the psychosocial effects of incarceration is the Stanford Prison Experiment (Haney, Banks, & Zimbardo, 1973), in which psychologically healthy individuals in a prison-simulation study took on the role of an inmate, becoming blindly obedient and suffering acute psychological trauma (Haney & Zimbardo, 1998).

As a result of these deficits, rehabilitative interventions are often implemented to increase desired behaviors among inmates (e.g., Geller, Johnson, Hamlin, & Kennedy, 1977; Johnson & Geller, 1974) and to provide inmates with education and training in psychosocial skills (e.g., Pearson, Lipton, Cleland, & Yee, 2002). The therapeutic community, based on principles of applied behavior analysis (Skinner, 1953), is among the various treatments implemented. This is an institutional treatment aimed specifically at treating substance-related disorders, which has been demonstrated to be effective in reducing substance abuse relapse (e.g., Field, 1985; Inciardi, Martin, Butzin, Hooper, & Harrison, 1997), preventing future criminal behavior (e.g., Dietz, O'Connell, & Scarpitti, 2003), and reducing recidivism (Lipton et al., 2002).

In addition to programs specifically aimed toward rehabilitation and treatment, many inmates participate in alternative programs and institutional work. …