This week I could have written about Brexit, the Tory Leadership contest, Trump’s visit or climate change, but I decided all of it was too depressing and anxiety inducing, so this week – Dogs in Prisons! There is a serious message behind this, as it is clear there needs to be a rethink about the use of prison and more attention paid to conditions if we are ever going to meaningfully address high re-offending rates. This is where I would normally link this to austerity and a need for wholescale reform in the delivery of justice. While this is important, I decided this week, it would be nice to focus on the positives of initiatives which aim to help the most marginalised in our society.
Animal Assisted Therapies (using animals to create a therapeutic environment) have been adopted in health settings, to enhance social care and mental health treatment, and findings from research show positive results (Durcan, 2018). The pilot for this innovation to be used in prisons was introduced by Rethink Mental Illness in the North East, and involved the use of therapy dogs working with men, women and young men. It was the result of a partnership between Her Majesty’s Prison and Probation Service (HMPPS), Rethink and the National Health Service (NHS). The evaluation showed a ‘considerable, measurable, and statistically significant benefit to the scheme’s participants’ (p.4) during its inception, as represented by clinical ratings such as the reduction of self-harm.
The observations from the study noted the calming effects of therapy dogs – anyone who has a pet will know all about this – and, they also helped with coping skills, supporting engagement and provided prisoners with a space in which to express emotion and not feel judged. Of course, with findings like this they make a case for recommending roll out of the scheme, but also that the prison service needs to tackle the stigma which was reported by staff, about taking part in such innovations, cited as part of the ‘rehabilitative culture’ (Durcan, 2018). The title of the report itself is ‘restoring something lost’ and this struck a chord as I reflected that the loss is perhaps the rehabilitative function of prison. Instead we have a penal system which is dominated by security concerns and tough on crime rhetoric, meaning our prisons have become ‘abject places of despair built on the infliction of punishment and pain’ where prisoners feel ‘bereft, disorientated and terrorised’ (Simms, 2015 – see https://www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/resources/beyond-govism). Therefore, anything which changes this state of existence in prisons should be adopted, especially if it improves engagement between staff and prisoners and gives them a sense of normality in a place so far removed from life outside. Along with improving coping skills, better engagement could also mean prisoners are more invested in their rehabilitation and open to interventions which may change their behaviour in a way which leads to desistance.
This was certainly found to be the case with arts and music therapy in prisons as shown by an evaluation of the ‘Good Vibrations’ project, a music-based therapy programme used in HMP Grendon (Wilson et al, 2009). A key finding was that participation led to better engagement with other forms of education and skills training, building a sense of confidence among prisoners that they were capable of learning something new. As with the animal assisted therapy scheme, the findings also reported that prisoners felt a sense of calm and had better relationships with staff. Desistance theorists highlight the importance of understanding the interaction between individual motivation to change and external conditions required to support this (Maruna, 2001; King 2012). That said, it is also widely accepted that even with both in place, desistance is likely to be a process of dealing with obstacles, un-intended consequences and unforeseen risks. I would argue no amount of pet therapy can help anyone overcome the challenges of being labelled an ex-offender, seeking jobs, training, housing and support to resettle into a community which may or may not support them. However, if the support is in place, alongside more meaningful and widespread reforms, animal therapy and arts and music-based programmes could trigger a change of direction for those prisoners who feel a loss of hope and sense of despair.
David Gauke, the (current) Secretary of State for Justice has promised to abolish prison sentences under six months this summer – at a time when the make up of the Cabinet could be changing in late July, this may be another bold promise which will not be delivered. But much more needs to be done. Perhaps this reflects acknowledgement of the need for more radical change, and that innovations such as animal assisted therapies, problem solving approaches and restorative practice should be considered as part of the reforms of the justice system. My more cynical view is a change of cabinet roles will once again mean an announcement which may take us in the right direction becomes consigned to the past, and ‘normal’ service resumes. It makes the efforts of organisations such as Rethink, Good Vibrations and the hundreds of other charities which support marginalised groups more vital. Of course, they should be better supported and incorporated into mainstream policies, rather than left tinkering at the edges, on a constant scrabble for funding and subject to the whims of ministerial judgements on what is important. However, to end on a more hopeful note, the fact that there are people and organisations who still seek to find ways to improve the lives of those in prison, whether as part of rehabilitation or just in some small way to make prison bearable is something to be cherished. In the face of all the challenges, they carry on with their work and refuse to give up, much like our loyal pets who bring so much joy, wherever they are.
DURCAN, G. (2018) Restoring something lost: The mental health impact of therapy dogs in prisons, Centre for Mental Health, London.
KING, S. (2012) Transformative agency and desistance from crime. Criminology and Criminal Justice. 13 (3), 366-383.
MARUNA, S. (2001) Making Good: How ex-convicts reform and rebuild their lives. Washington DC: American Psychological Association Books.
SIMMS, J. (2015) Beyond Govism, Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, https://www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/resources/beyond-govism.
WILSON, D., CAULFIELD, L. AND ATHERTON, S. (2009) Good Vibrations: The long-term impact of a prison based music project. Prison Service Journal, 182, pp. 27-32