Voices from Behind Prison Walls: The Impact of Training Service Dogs on Women in Prison

Minton C, Perez P, Miller K. (2015) Voices from Behind Prison Walls: The Impact of Training Service Dogs on Women in Prison, Society & Animals, 23 (5): 484-501.

Research question: What are the qualitative effects of training service dogs in a Prison Pup program on female inmates’ 1) emotional and physical health, 2) self-concept, 3) goal-directed behaviors, 4) empathy, and 5) self-control? These questions are addressed at a multi-security women’s prison in California. Sample: Thirty (N = 30) female inmates at the California Institute for Women (CIW) who were either primary dog trainers or assistants to the primary trainers were interviewed for the study. The participants ranged in age from 31 to 69 years of age, with the mean age being 50.23. The mean length of time they had served in prison was 19.03 years and the mean age that they were first imprisoned was 31.2 years of age. Of the 30 participants, 27 were incarcerated for varying degrees of murder, one for grand theft, one for rape, and one was undisclosed. Half of the women (15) had some college education, 2 were college graduates, 5 were high school graduates and 8 had some level of high school education or a GED. The length of time that the 30 inmates had been participating in the program was varied and ranged from less than 6 months up to 4 years.

Methodology: The women were interviewed by three different researchers in the educational facility of the prison. The interview consisted of seven questions: 1) How long have you participated in the program?, 2) Why did you want to be part of the program?, 3) Do you believe that participation in this program has or will have any benefits for you and if so, in what ways?, 4) Does participation in the program seem to reduce or increase your stress level?, 5) Does participation in the program enable you to see yourself differently and in what ways?, 6) Does participation in the program provide you with goals? Please share some of these, and 7) Does it improve or hinder your interaction with other inmates and correction officers? The inmates’ answers to these questions were coded into segments using NVivo software and Hosti’s inter-rater reliability formula was used to determine reliability factor.

Findings: Over 76% of the women reported that their stress level was reduced by participating in the program and 83.9% reported an improvement in their physical health. Some of the women also reported emotional healing from past abuse and some reported that they are now able to have positive goals. Also, 45% of the women reported they felt that the program gave them a way to form a positive self-concept, and some reported now being able to empathize with others. In regards to interactions with others, 77% of the participants felt that the program both helped and hurt their interactions with other inmates and 57% felt that it helped their interactions with the officers. Finally, 87.1% reported that they now have new goals in their life.

The authors summarize that all of the study participants felt that the program was highly beneficial and that they were privileged to be a part of it. The authors believe the results of the study support the idea that this type of program can address the psychosocial needs of prison inmates and also allow them to perform a service to the community.

Limitations: There were 48 inmates participating in the training program at the time of the study, but only 30 of them were actually able to do the interviews due to extenuating circumstances such as illness and work schedules. Prison officers were required to remain in the room during the interviews, so the interviews were not anonymous, which may have had an impact on the participants’ answers. Finally, this study was only conducted at one prison and other prisons with similar programs may have yielded different results.


Summary by Traci Raley


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