Humanizing Prisons with Animals: A Closer Look at "Cell Dogs" and Horse Programs in Correctional Institutions

By Deaton, Christiane | Journal of Correctional Education, March 2005 | Go to article overview

Humanizing Prisons with Animals: A Closer Look at "Cell Dogs" and Horse Programs in Correctional Institutions


Deaton, Christiane, Journal of Correctional Education


Abstract

If correctional education aims to transform individuals and bring about change, we need to consider the whole person who comes with human needs, emotions and attitudes. In order to expand our approach, alternative programs should be explored. A somewhat unusual but very promising approach to address offenders' human needs is the use of animals in institutions. The majority of these programs have a vocational skills component: Inmates train dogs to become service dogs for the disabled, or they work with horses, either wild mustangs or retired race horses in need of rehabilitation. Although vocational training is certainly a major consideration, these programs are also highly therapeutic and rehabilitative. Suggested outcomes can benefit many: The inmate, the institution, other agencies, and the community. The purpose of this article is to raise awareness of selected animal-assisted programs in correctional institutions and their reported benefits.

Introduction

Traditionally, educational programs in correctional institutions which intend to rehabilitate (or habilitate) adult and juvenile offenders stay within proven, safe parameters considered appropriate for this setting. Most address specific "deficits" of the offender, such as lack of vocational skills, basic education needs/GED, drug and alcohol abuse, etc.). The delivery of these programs is based on the underlying rational assumption: "This is what you need to succeed in society. You don't have it. Here's the solution if you want to turn your life around." While this approach is helpful in increasing the offender's knowledge or skills and might work for some, it is limited. If correctional education aims to transform individuals and bring about change, it is necessary to consider the whole person inside the uniform, who always comes with human needs, emotions and attitudes.

Depending on one's perspective, correctional education can be defined in different ways: Program-based (where correctional education is an institutional program), situational (education taking place inside correctional institutions) or inherent (emphasizing the correctional dimension and the teaching of confined offenders who have human needs) (Gehring, 2004). While the inherent definition is the most comprehensive, it is also the most challenging: It is conceivable to provide educational programs in prison, or to deliver education in a correctional setting, but how do we address human needs of incarcerated individuals? Taking this concept one step further, Zollman (1993) stated: "Education that remains merely on the surface of human life, that fails to go to the heart of being, will inevitably fail in being correctional or, in other words, formative, reformative, and transformative" (p. 93). How, then, can correctional educators address human needs, emotions or attitudes? After all, incarceration is not a therapeutic endeavor - we are not supposed to make prisoners "feel good" in correctional institutions which are punitive by nature. Based on what could be called a "dilemma" at best and "mission impossible" at worst, it is helpful to look outside the proverbial box toward alternative approaches. One such approach that provides opportunities to meet basic human needs such as love, acceptance, respect, trust, self-worth and usefulness involves incarcerated individuals caring for other living things, especially animals. Utilizing animals in institutional programs opens important dimensions; where human caregivers and teachers step on treacherous ground, we are likely to encounter less opposition to the idea of using animals to promote healing and change.

Animal-assisted programs in correctional institutions have gained increased media attention, especially after the cable channel Animal Planet aired several episodes of its "Cell Dogs" documentary. It features a number of programs in correctional facilities across the country where inmates train dogs either for service to the disabled, or to be adoptable by the public. …

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Humanizing Prisons with Animals: A Closer Look at "Cell Dogs" and Horse Programs in Correctional Institutions
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