Animal Assisted Therapy for Post-Incarceration Syndrome (PICS)

Animal Therapy for Post Incarceration Syndrome


Written by Briana Hilton for the NIA

The transition from incarceration back into society can be an immensely challenging journey. Individuals reentering society after a period of incarceration often grapple with many emotions, psychological challenges, and social barriers. Post-Incarceration Syndrome (PICS) is a term used to describe the complex set of difficulties that individuals face upon release from jail or prison. It’s estimated that 40% of people released each year have PICS. While there are various therapeutic approaches to help those suffering from PICS, one unconventional yet highly effective method gaining recognition is Animal Assisted Therapy intervention. This type of therapy involves the inclusion of animals in the therapy process to provide emotional, psychological, and social support to individuals. In this article, we will look at Animal-Assisted Therapy and how it can aid those struggling to reintegrate into society after incarceration.

The Far-Reaching Impact of PICS

PICS is a complex set of symptoms and challenges experienced by individuals after their release from incarceration. It can have a profound impact on a person’s life by causing anxiety, depression, and difficulty adjusting to life outside prison. PICS can prevent successful reintegration into society as it can hinder how a person functions emotionally and socially and their ability to work. The stigma associated with a criminal record often limits employment and housing opportunities, exacerbating feelings of hopelessness and isolation. This lack of support and resources increases the likelihood of reoffending as individuals may turn to familiar criminal networks as a means to survive. PICS, in essence, becomes a vicious cycle that impedes rehabilitation efforts and contributes to high recidivism rates.

Animal Therapy in Post-Incarceration Recovery

Animal therapy is a therapeutic approach that involves interaction between individuals with a history of incarceration and animals, typically dogs, cats, or horses, in a structured and supervised environment. It works by harnessing the healing power of animals to address emotional and psychological challenges commonly faced by those reentering society after imprisonment. Participants in animal therapy sessions engage in activities such as grooming, training, and bonding with the animals. This process fosters a profound sense of trust, responsibility, and empathy and builds a foundation of forgiveness and compassion, which are important for rehabilitation. The non-judgmental and unconditional companionship animals provide helps individuals build self-esteem and emotional resilience while promoting forgiveness towards oneself and others.

The Risks of Reoffending Without Support

Within five years of their release, 70% of people will reoffend in the US. People with Post-Incarceration Syndrome (PICS) face an even higher risk of reoffending without adequate support. PICS often leads to anxiety, depression, and difficulty in adjusting to life outside prison, increasing the likelihood of returning to criminal activities. Without proper intervention, this cycle can persist. Animal-assisted therapy can make a significant difference by providing emotional support and a sense of responsibility. Interacting with animals can reduce stress, anxiety, and depression, helping individuals cope with the challenges of reintegrating into society. Caring for animals also gives them to have a sense of purpose and empathy, which are crucial for rehabilitation. The bond formed with animals promotes positive behavioral changes, reducing the risk of reoffending. Animal-assisted therapy offers a holistic approach to addressing the unique needs of those with PICS, helping them reintegrate into society successfully.

Animal-Assisted Therapy in Correctional Programs

Many correctional facilities collaborate with animal shelters and rehabilitation centers to offer vocational training programs, including animal care, grooming, and training. Community-based organizations facilitate structured therapy sessions, and some transitional housing facilities also integrate therapy animals to support reintegration into society. Two notable programs are the Prison Pet Partnership Program in Washington State and Puppies Behind Bars in New York. Inmates in these programs train dogs for therapy and service work, gaining essential life skills, self-esteem, and a sense of purpose. These initiatives also benefit the animals by providing valuable training and socialization. Beyond skill development, animal-assisted therapy enhances the overall well-being of incarcerated individuals, promoting personal growth and facilitating their successful reintegration into society.

Rehabilitating individuals after incarceration is not only a moral imperative but also a practical necessity for reducing recidivism rates and building safer communities. Embracing innovative approaches like Animal-Assisted Therapy provides emotional support, addresses psychological trauma, and offers opportunities for personal growth, empowering individuals to break free from the cycle of reoffending.