A scheme of mutual benefit
‘If you can’t do the time, don’t do the crime’ – wise words but redundant if you have already been sentenced and face Prison life for weeks or years. A report from the Prison Reform Trust highlights the danger to the mental health of both inmates and Prison Officers in today’s institutions. The isolation and stress of incarceration can be extreme, while I loved Ronnie Barker as Norman Stanley Fletcher in the BBC’s comedy Porridge the reality of time locked away from family and friends can be damaging and depressing.
The Police and Crime Commissioner in each county has a broad remit which includes overseeing the work of the Police and the Prison Services, the liaison between the Police and the public is important and exploring ways to control the levels of crime is crucial. In Norfolk, PCC Lorne Green has taken a bold step by introducing rescued dogs with behavioural or training issues into the daily life of the inmates at Norwich prison. The idea is for the residents to work alongside a dog trainer and improve the chances of the individual dogs to be rehomed.
I am thrilled that such a ground breaking scheme should have been initiated in England; the value to the prisoners cannot be understated. We know how good dogs are for you, they can elicit responses from the most isolated of individuals. Dogs have been used in cases of children with autism who find communication almost impossible, the tactile quality of a patient dog who remains non-judgemental gives confidence with connections being made that can open up a whole new world to the child and their families.
One of the most debilitating aspects of being imprisoned is the enforced idleness, humans need meaningful activity to stave off depression and by introducing dog training techniques that are reward based and fair inmates will be able to learn the new skills of dog training and perhaps more importantly are able to interact with dogs who really have no preconceived idea of who they are.
Teaching a dog basic commands has the attraction of being instantly rewarding for the trainer if patience and good techniques are used. The subtle respect and affection that dogs offer can be a revelation to people who often have a poor self image, suddenly they have a reason to change their future. When a rescued dog has had a bad start in life I’m sure inmates can recognise the similarities in their situations and as the dogs improve and leave their past behind there is a clear path for prisoners to follow if they have the will.
Commissioner Lorne Green is very much a dog lover and he funded the first three months of the trial. It was so successful that a further three months is in place, the office of the PCC will provide the £2,500 to extend the pilot. It is even being hinted that permanent kennels may be part of a future plan. Mr Green is very enthusiastic about the scheme, he said: “A dog is said to be a man’s best friend and I don’t know of anyone more in need of a friend than a prisoner.”
He continued: “The dogs, which come from rescue homes, have been turned from aggressive, angry dogs that are now so well mannered and behaved that homes have now been found for them, that’s down to the attention that prisoners have given to them under the guidance of a professional dog trainer that we’ve made available.
“I think we’re breaking new ground and helping to turn the prisoners’ lives around. If we can turn around one life it’s worth it. Everyone benefits. It’s good for the prisoners, good for the prison while the dogs also benefit. Its win, win, win.”
In Scotland a similar project has been running at a young offenders unit at Polmont, Falkirk. Named Paws For Progress the young inmates become students as they work with Fife College towards SQA in Core Skills and Personal Development as well as qualifications in ICT, Communications and Numeracy. They have a target when they work with the dogs towards APDT Good Companion Awards and the successful rehoming of a dog is seen as a great achievement by the handler and the whole unit.
In America canine training programmes have been running in prisons since the 1980s, several studies have compared the life of a prisoner with that of a resident in care or nursing homes, the recurring themes of loneliness, monotony and helplessness are so very similar. There is supporting research regarding elderly, institutionalised people and their greater sense of wellbeing when animal companions are present, “The elderly often feel as though they are unimportant; however, pets have a tendency to change this belief, providing … a sense of responsibility and self-importance” (Harkrader et al, 2004, 74). Sadly, there is virtually no systematic research on prison/dog training projects and it seems for other county PCCs this is the stumbling block, they want proof before commitment and yet the anecdotal evidence is overwhelmingly in favour of any project that brings people and dogs together for mutual benefit.
The US routinely put prisoners to work training dogs to work in the community as service dogs for those in need. The advantages are obvious, low cost, high calibre training for the dogs and reduction in prison tensions and a valuable skill set for the individuals taking part.
I’d like to thank PCC Lorne Green for taking the first step in offering a second chance not just to the rescued dogs attending Norwich prison on training days but also to the inmates who have so much to learn from dogs.