Howard League blog · 26 Feb 2018
Animal magic in prison
I visited a women’s prison last week and met a woman who had been inside many years. There is so much wrong with our sentencing structure, but the point of this blogpost is to look at what can be done to mitigate some of the cruelties of the system today, while we are campaigning for radical change.
Self-injury is at epidemic proportions among prisoners, particularly women. But there are things that compassionate and imaginative prison governors can do to mitigate the extreme damage of prison, if they are brave enough.
What I saw in this prison was chickens.
Over the years I have seen prisoners caring for animals and I have seen the miracles it can work. One of the women in this prison had been prolifically harming herself, often seriously. Now she wasn’t. She was bursting with pride at how she was caring for the chickens, and I must say they looked beautiful.
Prisons often deal with self-injury by locking people up for longer, taking them off any regime and watching them all day and night. What I saw was the opposite, women being given more freedom, not less.
She was bursting with pride at how she was caring for the chickens, and I must say they looked beautiful
Given responsibility for caring for chickens, day in and day out, had a transformative effect. Women were calmer, had purpose and had become positively loving towards the creatures.
We all need someone or something to love and ways of showing that love, but it is rare that I see it possible in prisons.
I know some prisons allow dogs or even ponies to be brought in sometimes to be petted, but that is not the same as having animals to care for and be responsible for.
I remember when I first started at the Howard League I visited Feltham prison and found a goat wandering up and down the corridors. She was a pet for the children in the jail, and the boys had free range of the wings so they could look to her needs.
The point is that it can be done. It can be birds, or chickens or dogs or even fish. Animals can have a redemptive and calming effect. Don’t underestimate them.