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Prison Counseling

Prisons are supposed to be correctional institutions, but many prisons do nothing to rehabilitate their inmates. They become custodial institutions, serving mostly to keep dangerous people locked away from law-abiding citizens.

Efforts to rehabilitate prisoners with psychotherapy have been remarkably unsuccessful. One expert said he was tempted to title his chapter on prison rehabilitation programs "Some Grand Failures."

Why is prison counseling often difficult?

Before criticizing failures in prison rehabilitation, one should recognize the difficulties of changing people against their will. In therapy, change normally occurs because people want to change.

The problem with prison counseling is that prisoners usually do not want to change. They are in prison against their will, and their main concern is getting out.

If prisoners accept counseling at all, they may look upon it as a way of playing the model prisoner role, obtaining an early release or favors from prison officials. Yochelson and Samenow (1977) were disillusioned to discover this fact.

When we began working with criminals fifteen years ago, we used the term therapy, and for several years we regarded ourselves as psychotherapists. We soon learned that criminals were feeding us what they thought we wanted to hear, as they had with others who had worked with them.... The criminal views therapy as a means of removing himself from jeopardy. (Yochelson and Samenow, 1977, p.47)

Yochelson and Samenow observed that therapy in prison was like a big game. The object of the game was to gain early release or favorable treatment. Real progress, when it occurred, seemed to be an accidental byproduct of "playing the game."

The Tier System at Patuxent

The most successful prison rehabilitation experiments share a common element. They accept the inmate's strategic mentality.

In essence, such programs say, "Play along with us and you will get out earlier." A famous example of this approach was the Patuxent project in the state of Maryland.

What was unique about the 1951 Maryland law?

Patuxent was unique. Its population of young male delinquents had life sen­tences, in effect, because of a 1951 Maryland law which said "defective delinquents" could be committed indefinitely, possibly forever.

Defective delinquents were defined as those who posed a clear danger to society. The only way they could get out of the institution was by changing their behavior.

How did the graded tier system at Patuxent work?

To encourage change, Patuxent used a graded-tier system. The prison had four different areas called tiers. A prisoner entered on the bottom tier.

At this entry level, Patuxent was much like an ordinary prison. First-tier inmates had few privileges or rights. If the prisoner behaved properly for a period of time, he moved to a higher tier.

In Tier II a prisoner had longer exercise periods. Visits to the prison commissary were allowed for candy and other small purchases. Eventually, in the fourth tier, a prisoner was allowed to stay up as late as he wanted. He could have picnics with his family on the lawn.

If good behavior continued, the prisoner could eventually spend some time in the Patuxent halfway house in downtown Baltimore, away from the main institution. If he behaved himself there, he could be released on parole.

Inmates of Patuxent played along if they wanted good living conditions. They called it "shamming." One inmate said, in an interview:

What was shamming?

Look, man, most of us are good at shamming. We grew up on the streets surrounded by confidence games. Literature is available to everyone now–hell, we talk as much about the Oedipus complex as about baseball.

We know what these cats want to hear. Not the real gory stuff–what you're really thinking–because that scares 'em and makes 'em think you're still dangerous. But you spill your guts in a nice kind of way and act as if you're gaining all these insights.

Now that you know yourself and that you killed that girl because you were really killing your mother, you don't have to kill any more. It doesn't seem to occur to 'em that I might want to kill my mother several times over. Hell, everything I've told 'em is a lie. One big sham. (Trotter, 1975)

The director of the prison, Sigmund Manne, said it did not bother him if prisoners were shamming.

If a man can sham well enough to make it in society, I have no objec­tions. It means he's developed the internal controls that are necessary.

In what respects did the Patuxent program work well?

Patuxent worked fairly well by one measure. It had a low recidivism rate. In other words, prisoners released from Patuxent seldom returned to prison.

Critics said this was because only the most promising individuals were released. Defenders of Patuxent said that was just the point. As for the sham­ming, that might be the way prisoners looked at it, but in the process they practiced needed social skills.

Why was the Patuxent program discontinued?

Whatever its virtues, the Patuxent approach did not last long. Lawyers argued that the indefinite sentence violated a prisoner's legal rights. The cost-per-patient at Patuxent was about twice the average at other correctional institutions.

The final blow occurred when Maryland passed legislation forbidding behavior modification systems of all kinds in correctional institutions. That struck many psychologists as a contradiction of the very idea of "corrections" in prison.

Other psychologists welcomed this change as a legal reform freeing prison­ers from unwanted manipulation. The Patuxent experiment and similar graded-tier systems ended.

Prison Animal Programs

A more successful approach to rehabil­itation, considered strange when first attempted but now used all over the world, is using prisoners as animal trainers. This now goes by the acronym PAP for prison animal programs. Dogs, cats, and horses are the animal species most commonly involved.

Strimple (2003) surveyed the history of PAP programs and, except for a few reports from 1919 and World War II prisoner camps, the earliest program he could find was in 1975 at the Oakwood Forensic Center in Lima, Ohio. A psychiatric social worker named David Lee noticed improvement in a group of men who cared for an injured bird.

How did an injured sparrow lead to a new form of prison rehabilitation?

A patient had found a hurt sparrow in the prison yard. Although no animals were allowed in the wards at the time, the inmate smuggled the bird into the building and hid it in a broom closet.

This ward housed the institution's most depressed and noncommuni­cative patients. The patients adopt­ed the bird and caught insects to feed it.

For the first time, the inmates began acting like a group and relating well to the staff. When the staff realized animals could be effective therapy, the hospital proposed a study to try animal care as a therapy technique, including guidelines to protect the animals.

The hospital conducted a year-long comparison study between two identical wards. One had pets and the other did not. The ward with the pets required half the amount of medication, showed reduced violence, and had no suicide attempts. The other ward had eight suicides attempted during that period. (Lee, 1983, pp. 23-24)

Next came the Prison Pet Partnership Program at Washington State Correc­tions Center for Women. It was a part­nership between the prison, Washington State University, Tacoma Community College, and the Dominican nun Sister Pauline.

"Prison inmates are trained to raise puppies, socialize them, and train them for service to disabled people. Those that don't quite make the grade to work as a service dog are trained in obedience and offered to the public for adoption. The program also serves as vocational training for inmates, who can earn certification in pet training and grooming." ("8 Prison Animal Programs," 2017)

Cats have also been used for prison rehabilitation, and the Wild Horse Inmate Program (WHIP) was set up in Colorado in 1986, pairing inmates with wild mustangs. The mustangs were caught in a population control program and gentled (not "broken") by the inmate trainers.

What program spread from mustangs to brumbies?

WHIP was very successful. A visit to the program from Ross McKinney of the National Parks and Wildlife Service in Australia (which has a similar population problem involving brumbies or wild horses) led to a similar program there, in New South Wales.

Such programs were found to greatly reduce recidivism (repeat incarcer­ations). Robert Kent, superintendent of the Sanger B. Powers Correctional Center in Oneida, Wisconsin, said in 2003, "Since our dog training program started in 1997, we've had 68 inmates released who were involved in the program and not one has reoffended and returned to prison (Strimple, 2003).

What affects do the programs appear to have on recidivism?

A nation-wide program called Puppies Behind Bars program began in 1997 at a women's correctional facility in New York. Dogs were trained to become guides for the blind.

Ordnance training (sniffing out weapons or explosives) was added after 9/11. In 2006, dogs were trained as service dogs for wounded veterans. Now the program operates in six prisons.

A show called Cell Dogs was broadcast on Animal Planet in 2004, greatly in­creasing the visibility of such programs and helping them spread overseas. Britton and Button (2005) reviewed "prison pup" programs and found profound changes in the inmates after participation. They wrote:

What are psychological effects reported by graduates of these programs?

The men who train the dogs often form deep emotional bonds with the animals. It was not uncommon for men to get tears in their eyes when they spoke of giving up their dogs.

Several inmates who were training small dogs in fact held them on their laps during our interviews; others were obviously proud of what their dogs could do and demonstrated this to us while we talked.

Many of those we interviewed be­lieve that the strongest positive they receive from the program is the change it effects in their attitudes and emotions. For these men the dogs are truly therapeutic. Partici­pants believe that the dogs help them to deal with anger, teach them patience, give them unconditional love, and simply make doing time a little easier. (Britton and Button, 2005)

A DAWGS in Prison graduate gave the following testimonial:

"I woke up during my first year of the DAWGS program. My attitude changed. My routine changed. My health changed. My priorities changed. Everything changed in my life in order for me to be responsible enough to take care of one of God's precious creations. DAWGS gave me the wisdom to see what kind of changes were needed in my life in order to be a productive citizen again after a total of 26 years behind bars." (DAWGS in prison, 2017)


"8 Prison Animal Programs" (2016, June 7) Mental_Floss. Retrieved from:

Britton, D. M. & Button, A. (2005) Prison pups: Assessing the effects of dog training in correctional facilities. Journal of Family Social Work, 9, 79-95.

News. (2017, February 14) DAWGS in Prison. Retrieved from: .

Lee, D. R. (1983). Pet therapy: Helping patients through troubled times. California Veterinarian, 5, 24-25.

Strimple, E.O. (2003) A history of prison inmate-animal interaction programs. American Behavioral Scientist, 47, 70-78.

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