Pooches in prison? Lawmakers say service animals could aid inmates with disabilities

By: - June 12, 2023 6:44 am

Dog-training programs have been proven to be therapeutic in prisons. Now lawmakers want to allow incarcerated people to have service animals. (Photo by Paul Morigi/Getty Images for America's VetDogs)

Incarcerated people with disabilities could get service and companion animals under new legislation proposed by several Democratic state lawmakers.

Assemblyman Reginald Atkins (D-Union) said the animals could help people in prison with daily activities made difficult by their disabilities, as well as serve as a calming influence to help them cope with the stress of incarceration.

“This is focusing on trying to help those individuals who have disabilities and also help them recover from trauma-related challenges,” Atkins said. “Going into the system can cause a mental challenge all by itself, so this will impact people with disabilities that are both visible and invisible.”

Under the bill, someone who uses a service animal and gets sentenced to state prison would be able to petition the Department of Corrections to bring their animal behind bars with them. Those already incarcerated would be able to request a service animal. Corrections staff, along with Department of Human Services staff, would then assess and grant requests deemed warranted and feasible.

The state would pay for the pups, but the cost hasn’t yet been determined, Atkins said.

His Assembly colleagues Raj Mukherji (D-Hudson) and Shanique Speight (D-Essex) co-sponsored the bill, which has yet to be heard by the law and public safety committee. Sen. Brian Stack (D-Hudson) sponsored an identical bill in that chamber, where the bill awaits a hearing before the judiciary committee.

A Department of Corrections spokeswoman didn’t respond to questions about how many people in New Jersey’s state prisons have physical or mental disabilities. But in a recent state budget document, corrections officials said their mental health special needs roster grew from 16% of the total prison population in 2005 to 23% last year.

The bill has at least one skeptic. William Sullivan, who heads the union that represents correctional officers, had many questions.

“Who’s going to pay for the food? Who’s going to pay for the grooming and the vet care? How can we ensure the animals aren’t vicious or the inmates don’t train them to attack officers or other inmates?” Sullivan said. “And, of course, you’re living in a facility that has inmates that could be allergic to animals or scared of dogs. Or what if they abuse them?”

Even taking the animals outside to relieve themselves could pose logistical and security challenges, especially because many prisons are short-staffed, Sullivan added.

Assemblyman Reginald Atkins (D-Union) said he knows firsthand how animals can improve someone’s mental health. (Dana DiFilippo | New Jersey Monitor)

Atkins is undeterred. With a shih tzu named Bear and a golden retriever named Lady at home, he knows firsthand how animals can improve one’s mental health.

“I don’t really call them pets. I call them furry family members,” he said.

Studies support the benefits of animals.

A 2005 study found that prison programs with “cell dogs” and horses are “highly therapeutic and rehabilitative,” while also giving incarcerated people valuable vocational skills. And a 2018 study in Massachusetts found that incarcerated people participating in a dog-training program saw gains in pride, self-esteem, empathy, self-control, and responsibility.

While it’s unusual for prisons to provide service dogs to incarcerated people, dog-training programs are fairly common behind bars. Both Pennsylvania and New York have busy dog-training programs in prisons.

Two New Jersey prisons used to, but those programs ended when the prisons closed (William H. Fauver Youth Correctional Facility) or were slated for closure (Edna Mahan Correctional Facility for Women). The New Jersey Training School for Boys in Jamesburg has an equine therapy program, Sullivan said.

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Dana DiFilippo
Dana DiFilippo

Dana DiFilippo comes to the New Jersey Monitor from WHYY, Philadelphia’s NPR station, and the Philadelphia Daily News, a paper known for exposing corruption and holding public officials accountable. Prior to that, she worked at newspapers in Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, and suburban Philadelphia and has freelanced for various local and national magazines, newspapers and websites. She lives in Central Jersey with her husband, a photojournalist, and their two children.