In the tough world of the prison, caring for a pet can lift spirits, reduce violence and lower the rate of recidivism. Jenny Knight meets animals on the inside
Sammy was a hard man. He moved from approved school to prison, getting more antisocial with every year. Neither harshness nor kindness affected him. His behaviour was so violent that he spent years in solitary confinement. When he came into contact with staff, he swore at them and swung punches or kicks; if they kept their distance he spat - or, on one occasion, hurled the contents of his chamberpot.

Then, while in the special unit at Shotts prison in Lanarkshire, which houses some of Scotland's most dangerous prisoners, Sammy was given a pet rabbit.

The small, furry creature changed him. For the first time in years he let himself show tenderness. He also started to talk to other prisoners and staff. When he was given two hamsters, he cared for them, too.

Later Sammy wrote in a prison magazine: "Since becoming the owner of these three animals, I have learnt that all animals will defend themselves against cruelty and ill-treatment, in the same way I have done in the past. I'd like to encourage management and prisoners in other establishments, especially young offender establishments, to take a lead from Shotts' unit and set up pet schemes. I think this sort of initiative will begin to humanise the regimes and make it possible to find different ways of resolving conflict."

Sammy's experience is not unique. Take the prisoner who was allowed to keep a stray kitten found hiding in bushes near his cell. He said: "This wee cat saved my sanity. The wee cat was the first thing I showed affection to in seven years."

It is becoming clear that pets in prison bring all sorts of benefits, including reduced violence, lower suicide rates, less drug-taking and even, it is claimed, less reoffending.

A Lancashire vet, Elizabeth Ormerod, and an assistant chief probation officer, Mary Whyham, are spearheading a British scheme to extend the role of pets and farms in prisons. Mrs Whyham became enthused when she took her boxer bitch, Paris, in to work, and saw how popular she was with young offenders, who took the dog for walks, petted her and inquired about her health. Paris went on to become a registered PAT therapy dog, visiting inmates of Garth prison as well as the elderly and handicapped.

"The addition of animals in prison has a magic effect on prisoners," said Ms Whyham. "The relationship between staff and prisoners seems to improve, and there is less violence."

Prison officers can also be convinced. "There are angry, bitter men in prisons," said one. "Those who are the most dangerous can be gentle with pets."

Elsewhere in the world, the benefits are already widely documented. Earl Strimple, a Washington vet, and James Moneymaker, a criminologist, studied "Pet Facilitated Therapy" at Lorton Correctional Facility in Virginia. They wrote: "The programme gave a unique opportunity for individuals who have committed heinous crimes to redeem themselves. The opportunity to show love and compassion to an animal may have lasting effects on what was heretofore a hardened criminal."

At Lorton, prisoners with pets were responsible for keeping them healthy and caring for them. At the same time, they studied to become animal laboratory technicians. Mr Strimple found: "The time spent with the animal ... has produced a modification of behaviour from a violent, often malicious personality, to a caring, responsible individual."

One of the prisoners, serving 45 years to life for murder, told him: "When I came here, I didn't like cats; now I have one, and a rat. Also I was illiterate; now I'm taking courses. In sum, the programme has shown me I have some purpose in my life after all."

Recidivism for the group on release was 13 per cent, compared with the US average of 62.5 per cent.

At Oakwood Forensic Center in Lima, Ohio, which houses the criminally insane in a maximum security wing, Dave Lee, a psychiatric social worker, noticed extraordinary improvements in patients after an injured sparrow, found in the prison yard, was smuggled into a ward of depressed and non- communicative patients.

The bird was hidden in a broom cupboard and fed with insects caught by the patients. For the first time, they began acting as a group and talking to staff.

When the bird was discovered, staff realised that animals might be therapeutic and launched a year-long study between two matched wards, one with pets and one without. The patients on the pet ward required half the normal amount of medication, violence was reduced and there were no suicide attempts. On the other ward there were eight suicide attempts during the year. As Mr Strimple says: "The process of rehabilitation is a long and often arduous task, but we are seeing more and more ... that prisoners can modify their former behaviours and learn to love and care for another living creature."

Elizabeth Ormerod and Mary Whyham recently conducted a survey of 140 British prisons and discovered a wide range of animals, including a working farm with cows, sheep and shire horses at Dartmoor, donkeys and rabbits at Thorn Cross, and fish at Saughton and Perth prisons. The most popular programmes involve birds or fish. One prison is visited by a pair of falcons and a number have resident cats. Others are involved with Riding for the Disabled. One prison has a sanctuary for stray dogs, and yet another helps at an animal refuge.

Progressive governors also initiate community schemes. Some prisoners are allowed to visit local schools with animals from the prison farm.

At Askham Grange women's open prison in Yorkshire, where 130 women from teenagers to pensioners live in a Victorian manor in its own grounds, the soothing effect of animals is acknowledged. Women who are allowed out on work placements bring back titbits for Garfield, a bulky, one-eared ginger cat. Other women regularly feed the wildfowl that live on the lake in the grounds.

"The cat is an old reprobate," says the prison governor, Harry Crew. "He has been neutered now, but there are a number of other ginger cats around which look suspiciously like him. He lies sprawled on a sofa in the hostel for the women working in the community. I suspect the food is better there. He's a great character. We also have a black Labrador drug dog called Barney. He does sweeps for drugs, but when he's stood down he loves being petted.

"A number of the women are animal-mad. They take bread out to the ducks every day. When I joke that one will do for the pot, it doesn't go down well. Some of the women have lost contact with their families and are serving long sentences. Feeding the ducks is a way they can lavish their feelings on something.

"I think environment and animals are both important. They have an influence on the way people feel and behave. One of the gardeners is about to get a falcon, so that will add interest. I was at a boys' borstal many years ago where there was a farm. The kids always petted the calves. They were something they could be tender to, and had a civilising influence on lads who had grown up in an inner-city flat and never had a pet or someone to care for."

At Dartmoor, selected prisoners help on the dairy farm. Others are allowed to keep caged birds.

"We also have a few shire horses, sheep, and some rare breeds," said Mike Astill, a governor. "I am an animal-lover myself, and there are benefits to some prisoners in looking after and caring for animals. Mainly, the object is to get prisoners who show a talent into work - to introduce them to a second career after crime. Some have taken up employment in the farming industry."

Elizabeth Ormerod says that, while many people feel prisoners should be kept in punitive conditions, these very conditions increase recidivism.

"There are so many benefits that arise from human-animal interactions, which are especially beneficial for those with special needs in institutions. Yet too few professionals are aware of these benefits or develop appropriate programmes," she said. "Significant benefits involve better relationships in prisons, reduction in drug-taking, improved self-esteem among prisoners, and opportunities for education, community work, training and employment."

The beneficial effect of animals has never been subjected to academic scrutiny in Britain, although Whyham and Ormerod hope to persuade a university to make an assessment. The Home Office has no policy, and leaves decisions up to prison governors.

In many other countries there is a positive drive to use animals. In South Africa, a formal policy allows prisoners to keep pets, under certain circumstances, as a reward for good behaviour. Staff have found that aggressive, destructive and frustrated prisoners become much calmer. In Spain, dogs are used to help treat jailed drug addicts. Other schemes include training stray dogs in America and Australia, and breaking in wild horses in Colorado.