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Animal-Assisted Therapy with Female Inmates with Mental Illness: A Case Example from a Pilot Project

Rachael A. Jasperson (2010).  Journal of Offender Rehabilitation, 49(6), 417-433.

Incarcerated women consistently have higher levels of mental health needs than their male counterparts. These needs result from violent victimization, major depression, posttraumatic stress disorder, mood disorder, borderline personality disorder, and substance abuse. Cognizant of these matters, in 2004 the Utah Commission on Criminal and Juvenile Justice conducted a survey of the state’s female prisoner population, finding that 28.2% of this population was currently in mental health treatment, whereas 45.4% had previously been under mental health care. More than one-half (56%) of the women reporting said that they had received mental health treatment while not incarcerated, including 15% who had been hospitalized prior to admission to prison.

 Animal-assisted therapy is increasingly widespread, or at least popular, in prisons across the country. According to Rachael Jasperson of the University of Utah’s School of Social Work, previous studies have shown that mentally ill persons improve their behavior in response to this intervention. In brief, they experience such changes as increased alertness, openness and desire for social contact, and greater social psychological balance. She also reports that animal-assisted therapy exists in at least 36 state prison systems to some extent or another.

 In this article, Jasperson describes a pilot animal-assisted therapy program that was implemented in 2008 for female prisoners at the Utah State Prison. Jasperson, who is also a mental health therapist working with women at the state prison, observes that the program consisted of eight one-hour weekly or twice weekly sessions. A group approach was used, involving psycho-education and therapeutic intervention. Regular sessions found women sitting in a circle around a therapy dog, who would alternatively interact with the women and serve as a model for discussion topics, which included boundaries, personal safety, developing trust, trustworthiness, personal responsibility, expressing emotions in a healthy fashion, and learning new behaviors.

 Jasperson reports that “direct observations by the mental health professionals working directly with these women seemed to favor decreased social isolation and increased pro-social behavior. Individual therapist’s reports indicated that these inmates seemed more open to addressing therapeutic issues, approached therapy with a more optimistic attitude, and articulated an increase in self-awareness.”  Furthermore, she reports, “All group participants showed an increased motivation to attend group. Typically, a 5-10 minute warning would be required prior to group commencement in order for groups to start on time. However, with the animal-assisted therapy group all participants were dressed and ready at least 15 minutes before group. Group members stated that they looked forward to seeing the dog during the group and that the anticipation made them feel excited and happy. In addition, all the group members participated eagerly in most sessions. There were a few sessions where an inmate was quiet, not volunteering responses. However, when called on, even during these times, they contributed thoughtfully.”

 Jasperman adds a “case study” of a 42-year-old woman with a schizoaffective disorder who went through this program, and she draws some implications.

 For further information, contact Rachael A. Jasperson, College of Social Work, University of Utah, 395 South 1500 East, Rm. 101, Salt lake City, UT 84112, (e-mail)



Posted Fri, Mar 11 2011 4:44 PM by Tracey Vessels
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