Prison officers are taking their dogs to work in a bid to defuse tensions and help inmates during the pandemic. Visits to prisons were suspended for months as the coronavirus pandemic hit and there were fears for inmates’ mental health due to strict Covid restrictions.
At Parc Prison, Bridgend, officers said the dogs helped lighten the atmosphere.
Lloyd, who has one year left on his sentence, said being with them helped him to “look forward”. He said Rosco, who joins them at the prison store, was like one of the boys and went with them around the site.
“It’s just a reminder of what your life was like before and how it can be once you get out and it’s nice not to have reminders of what you might have done, you’re looking forward rather than looking back” he said.
The scheme, run by charity Pets as Therapy, is being used in 24 prisons across the UK, and was introduced at the privately-run HMP Parc at the start of the pandemic.
Family visits to prisons across England and Wales were suspended for months as the coronavirus hit, and strict restrictions were in place to try and curb the spread of the virus. After some prisoners and staff at Parc showed symptoms, adult prisoners were locked in their cells for more than 23 hours a day, while young offenders had about three hours out of their cells a day. While visits to adult prisoners have since resumed as restrictions eased, face masks must be worn and no hugging is allowed. Some restrictions on activities outside of cells remain in place, but prisoners are now back at work and attending classes.
Shirley-Ann Gates, a complex needs support worker, helps inmates who have mental health issues, autism, learning difficulties and dementia. She takes her dog Bella in to meet inmates in their cells, for exercise and even to parole hearings.
“She relaxes prisoners and I find they talk a lot better when they see a dog… a lot of prisoners who think they are never going to see a dog again get quite upset and emotional when they see her,” she said.
Ms Gates said a lot of the prisoners opened up about trauma and past issues they had never spoken about before when Bella was with them.
“There was one prisoner, who had been to a number of prisons before he came here, who was quite violent, but seeing Bella and spending time with her, he was a lot more cooperative with fellow prisoners and other members of staff,” she added.
Kieran, who has two years left of his sentence in Parc, said he looked forward to spending time with therapy dog Rosco during his work shifts, as he missed his dog at home.
“I love dogs, I love being around the dog, it makes you feel good inside, they just cheer you up,” he said.
“It can be a stressful environment in there and dogs just take that stress away,” he added. “It creates a more relaxed environment. It’s a common ground for people to talk about. You see a dog walking past and you’ll have staff members who’ve never said a word to each other stop and have a chat. We have offenders in there who struggle to communicate with officers or other people, but we find they are much more receptive with dogs, so that’s breaking down barriers, and once we break down those barriers we can help them more.”
Matthew Robinson, from Pets As Therapy, said animals helped to reduce stress, but for security reasons only prison staff could take their pets into Parc.
The dogs have to pass an assessment, which tests their temperament to see whether they startle easily, and their fitness before they can be used as therapy dogs.
He said: “Dogs are non-judgemental, they’re great listeners, and they reduce stress levels, so they bring a lot of joy to the people interacting with them.”