Many people will have heard of the ‘Birdman of Alcatraz,’ a notorious criminal who, during the 1920s, was allowed to keep birds in his cell at Leavenworth Penitentiary, Kansas. Remarkably, despite his violent history, Robert Stroud had a soft-spot for the sparrows that visited him in the prison yard and was eventually allowed to keep them. Before long he was offered canaries and went on to rear and sell in excess of 300 birds from his cell.

Beside his criminal infamy, the Birdman is famous for being one of the first examples of a prisoner with a pet. His observations and contributions to ornithology during his time at Leavenworth, particularly in the field of hemorrhagic septicaemia diseases, are well respected and he has even been labelled 'the best-known example of self-improvement in a US prison' thanks to his birds.

This might have been an isolated case back then, but today, pets in prisons are much more common. In fact, inmates in a number of US jails are being allowed to keep dogs, cats and other small animals in their cells for the purpose of ‘rehabilitation.’

In the UK, pet programs aimed at reconditioning prisoners and teaching them lessons in responsibility and compassion are less common than they are across the pond. That said, a number of UK prisons still allow inmates to keep caged birds as part of the ‘Earned Privileges Scheme,’ including budgies and cockatiels.

As many as 19 dangerous inmates (17 of which are serving life-terms) at a Category A prison in Durham have the pets, with the majority of these being murderers and serious repeat offenders. Prisoners at HMP Frankland, one of the UK’s highest security prisons that was once home to notorious inmates Harold Shipman and Ian Huntley, are given the privilege of keeping birds in their cells, providing they show good behaviour and maintain the birds to acceptable standards.

Understandably, many of the murder victims' families have branded the privilege a 'disgrace' that shows too much leniency to dangerous criminals that are serving terms for serious offences. Defending the privilege, the Ministry of Justice explains the 'pride and comfort' prisoners take in their pets and how they have a 'therapeutic effect' on the prison as a whole.

Research from America is promising on this score, showing that inmates who have been allowed pets are far less likely to commit offences inside or have violent outbursts. Prison staff at Oakwood Forensic Centre, Ohio, a maximum security prison for the criminally insane, noticed that prisoners on one ward were suddenly being more cooperative than usual. When they looked into the matter, they discovered that the inmates had found an injured bird in the prison yard that they were nursing back to health.

Because of this, the staff at Oakwood conducted a study that permitted pets on one ward but not another. The study lasted a year and demonstrated that the inmates on the pets ward were significantly less violent than the other prisoners, requiring only half the medication of their fellow inmates and making no suicide attempts, compared with eight on the pet-less ward.

Similarly, at Washington State’s maximum security Purdy Correctional Centre for Women, inmates were given the chance to adopt and train abandoned shelter dogs. The dogs were placed with the prisoners deemed 'most stable' with the aim of socialising the dogs for future re-homing. The program was a success; dogs that would otherwise have been euthanised were given nurturing relationships, and prisoners gained a sense of purpose and were taught valuable lessons in responsibility and kindness. More importantly, not a single woman released from the program was returned to prison after serving their term.

All this would suggest that pets in prisons are an effective measure in rehabilitating offenders. Yet, despite the body of research showing the positive benefits of prison pets, many people still believe pet ownership is a privilege too far. For many of us who can't afford a dog ourselves, allowing them to the country's criminals is not something we might take kindly to. Also, it raises the question: how can dangerous individuals be trusted to care for innocent and helpless animals?

Once given an animal, the inmates are fully responsible for its day-to-day care. This includes feeding, grooming, obedience training and housebreaking. Of course, all persons participating in pet programs have to meet strict criteria before they are granted an animal. This usually means being clear of report for 6 months prior to participating and usually having at least 2 years left of their sentence (to allow enough time for training).

Inmates are also under constant observation and if an animal comes to any harm, the privilege is immediately revoked. Prisoners with a history of animal or drug abuse are not permitted on most programs. That said, many inmates with convictions of murder are.

In Marysville, Ohio, Sharon Young is serving a lengthy sentence for aggravated murder. Despite conceding that "ten years ago you wouldn't have wanted me near your pets," she is now responsible for nursing almost 400 animals back to health every year. This includes orphaned wild birds, rabbits and poultry.

Another US inmate, Eric Robertson, convicted of murder in 1992, has helped to train and socialise 22 dogs during his incarceration, providing round-the-clock care to therapy dogs in training. "By working with the dogs, we're giving them a chance to get back to a life that some of us might never see," says Robertson.

The waiting list for special therapy dogs is miles long, so could prison training be a step towards a quicker process? Do pet programs demonstrate how the prison system can aid in the rehabilitation of criminals, while serving the community at large? Or, should the privilege of pet ownership be reserved for those staying on the right side of the law? Whatever your thoughts on the matter, please share them with us!

Alternatively, feel free to email me directly with any further questions and/or suggestions for future blog posts: [email protected]

Written by: Hannah Dyball