Monday, August 16, 2010

Prison dog training programs deserve results-based evaluation

Having recently mentioned the new dog-training program at TYC's girls' unit in Brownwood, I should point out this article in the Houston Chronicle about a similar program for women offenders at TDCJ in Gatesville that trains dogs for disabled veterans. The story opens:
Sharon Cooper, a Houston woman serving 30 years in prison for embezzlement, wasn't quite sure what she was getting into when she signed up to train dogs with Patriot Paws. Maybe it was all about sitting up, rolling over and doing cute puppy tricks.

She quickly learned, though, that it was about much more: changing lives — her own and others'.

Cooper, 49, is one of 13 female inmates at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice's Crain Unit devoting their full time to training dogs to aid disabled military veterans. Ten more at the nearby Murray Unit also work in the program.

"I was in awe when I saw what these dogs did," Cooper said, adding that the training experience has given direction to her own life. "I never really had a passion in life. This could be my passion. This could be my career."

Many might be surprised at what Patriot Paws dogs, most of whom pretty much appear to be run-of-the-mill Rovers, can do.

These dogs — Barney, Parole, Memphis and the rest — are super-valets who can drop your dirty socks in the washer, fetch cold drinks from the fridge, bring your medicine or your trousers, open doors, gallop for help in emergencies and keep you steady on your feet and in your mind.

To the those who rely on them, they're best buddies, canine soulmates. To women such as Cooper, they're a heart-lifting chance to give back to society.
Former TDCJ board chair Christina Crain deserves credit for bringing the program to TDCJ:
[Lori] Stevens, 52, who has trained dogs for more than two decades, launched Patriot Paws in an effort to help Dallas-area disabled vets. The program expanded to the Gatesville prison units through the interest of former TDCJ Chairwoman Christina Crain, a Dallas lawyer for whom the prison was named. Crain, Stevens said, was familiar with similar programs outside Texas.

At first, Stevens was nervous.

"I didn't know what to expect," she said. "You get goose bumps just walking in the gate. ...The first time we came down, we spent two weeks training the trainers. They were just a bunch of people who had made stupid mistakes. I met some amazing women. They're just like sponges soaking up knowledge."

Stevens said positive reinforcement is used to train the dogs to respond to voice and visual commands.

Once the dogs master dozens of basic skills, they are "customized" to care for their new owners. Ninety percent of the veterans who receive dogs suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder; some are amputees, others victims of head trauma.

"The dogs can open and close doors; get help in emergencies; pick up dropped items," Stevens said. "They do the laundry. They retrieve phones and medicine. They push emergency light switches. Now we have dogs who pull down zippers and pull off shoes and socks."

Patriot Paws, largely supported through donations, provides the dogs free. Close to 70 percent go to veterans.
I notice that in both the adult and youth systems these dog training programs are operated and presumably funded as nonprofits. But I'm willing to bet - and it's certainly worth gathering data and testing - that the experience of successfully participating in such programs has more therapeutic and/or rehabilitative value than many of the treatment and counseling programs TDCJ offenders go through now.

There doesn't seem to be much research I could locate on recidivism rates or related outcomes for offenders who participate in these programs, though they've been implemented here and there around the country. A search on the Social Science Research Network on the keywords "prison, training, dog" revealed nothing. Via Google Scholar I found a study showing the programs reduce depression and boost self-esteem among women inmate trainers, but didn't focus on recidivism. Most research on the topic, like this 2007 Master's thesis focused on a program in Ohio (pdf), is more descriptive than analytical. An article from 2006 said the field of criminology "has failed to systematically study the phenomenon."

Relatedly, last night on PBS there was a documentary titled "Through a Dog's Eyes" that told the story of end-users of service dogs like those being trained in the Patriot Paws program. Clearly the demand for such animals is greater than the supply. If the programs could be shown to reduce recidivism and/or improve inmate behavior, perhaps it'd be worth the state paying to scale up operations - in the case of juveniles perhaps financing it by jettisoning things that don't work, like TYC's failed drug treatment program.

Trying innovative strategies is great, but I'd prefer that when corrections officials do so that there's an evaluation component so it's possible to determine whether the program is working as intended (or at all). I consider the missing evaluation component a major shortcoming of Texas' 2007 probation reforms, so that criticism isn't specific to dog training. But in this case there are so many positive anecdotal accolades for such programs it'd be nice to get some evidence-driven analysis of what happens with inmates who participate after they leave custody. If the results are positive, who knows? Maybe a generation from now instead of being renowned for making license plates and furniture, prisons could become known as first-rate dog-training academies for people with special needs. That'd certainly change the culture of the institutions.


Anonymous said...

This is wonderful, Scott, I have begged for TDCJ to become an educational institution -- run like a school or college rather than a punishment machine -- and this could be the perfect way to begin. I have someone just getting out of a KY prison where the units are run with opportunities for the men to make choices and manage themselves. But the way, they are allowed to keep cats as pets in their cells.

Anonymous said...

P.S. I should have said "room" not "cells." Each man has a key to his room that he can enter and exit at will to go to ice/soda machines, microwave ovens, day room, rec room (with pool tables, ping pong, card tables, exercise machines, and an art corner). They hear "please" and "thank you, gentlemen" from the officers. Can buy fresh fruit and Irish potatoes at commissary. Very civilized.

Anonymous said...

On their face, these programs appear to work. But you are right, we need facts and program evaluation to prove this. However, it is highly unlikely to ever occur since TDCJ will probably lay off the staff who are qualified and capable of conducting such research. I would definitely like to see programs that are educational and vocational (at the same time) while allowing offenders to actually give back to the community. We have a lot of wounded warriors coming home who could use some assistance and many nonprofits who are likely willing to step up to the plate to help, not to mention the other special needs members of our society who can benefit. But the proof is in the pudding, not how we feel about the pudding.

Anonymous said...

When I was at Gatesville I was involved in dog training. The security group called it practice runs. They would give me a route to take and 10 minutes then send the dogs after me. The important thing was to climb a tree so the dogs would not attack you. You could not wrap your feet in trash bags our use pepper or go into the river. These were tricks employed on a real run.
Several weeks ago a man in his late 60’s sent me a short story he wrote about his time in Gatesville. I asked my daughter now a junior at a prep school, and a huge fan of horror stories, and I’m proud to say very scholarly, to read the short and give me a literary commentary. She thought it was an ok story and began going down the list of literary critiques. I asked her what would you think if I told you it was a true story. Her face turned white, she sat down, and said That makes it really scary because it’s difficult to believe people could do this to children. We are having very interesting conversations about the us vs them mentality.

I was wondering what Christina Crain was about when I heard the Gatesville facility was being named in her honor. I was very much impressed with all the wonderful things she has done especially in the area of child advocacy. Her Amachi program is really commendable at keeping kids out of the system. I can’t help to think if some group was playing a cruel political joke on her by naming a facility with such a devastating history of state sponsored child abuse after her. I wonder if Christiana Crain new the history of this horrible place in this horrible town could she have accepted this as an honor. On the other hand as the blood of children in unmarked graves cries out against the state while tyc continues its culture of cover up and abuse, no one, even child advocates seem to care to acknowledge. It’s a joke or its Texas politics.

MMR said...

Tuning in late here, but I think this evaluation question is an important and worth thinking about more generally. I think we can be too narrow in defining the outcomes we want to measure. Recidivism is a popular measure, but since rearrest & parole violation are at least in part driven by CJS factors unrelated to the person's conduct (e.g., funding, War on Drugs policy decisions), I don't like it as an exclusive focus. Giving people purpose, a sense of self-worth, an opportunity to care for another creature - maybe those things are things we should measure as well, as they may help someone do his or her time, be a better parent, or simply live a decent, dignified life and contributing to his or her community.

Anonymous said...

""This is wonderful, Scott, I have begged for TDCJ to become an educational institution -- run like a school or college rather than a punishment machine""

fyi, TDCJ does have a school/college, its called the "Windham School District" do some research before you spout ur mouth off. Also, if you want to be educated, and not bout ooooh idk, not being a jerkoff and learn how to obey the law.

Sr Paulina said...

I started the prison dog programs back in 1981 in Washington State and since this time started them all over the country, never charging money for my work.

It is very difficult to study the Recidivism rate since once they leave the prison, the dog programs or the prisons have nothing more to do with this inmate... it goes to the job of the parole office who often don't know what the inmate did in prison.

There are people who turned their lives around. The institutions want the inmate to succeed but their focus is how they change while in prison.. what they do when they get out, they can only hope that it will carry over. It isn't just the dogs but the connections with the trainers, with education that a program might give to the inmates.. about encouraging them to use their ability to train in a positive manner once they get out.

The programs have helped so many people around the United States and in other countries.