Pet therapy sessions at model Italian prison keep recidivism low

By Ella Ide ,AFP

BOLLATE, Italy — With a bark of excitement, Titti, Tato and Carmela scamper down the corridors of the Bollate prison near Milan and are enveloped by prisoners who shower them with treats, pats and hugs. It’s pet therapy day, and Valeria Gallinotti, founder of the Dogs Inside association, has brought her labrador, doberman and a mongrel to play with inmates in Italy’s model jail, where a host of such initiatives keep repeat offender rates at a record low. Convicted murderers and sex offenders scoop up the canines for kisses, burying their hands in their fur and play endless games of fetch with tennis balls in the prison yard, chasing them oblivious to the rain. ��My dream was to organize pet therapy sessions in prison because it’s the one place where there is a total lack of affection, where dogs can create calm, good moods, emotional bonds and physical contact,�� Gallinotti, 47, told AFP. She volunteers once a week to teach the prisoners how to train the animals �X with treats handed out for sitting, shaking paws and lying down �X as well as how pet therapy works so that some can go on to set up their own initiatives once released. The 53-year-old, who divides his time between the dogs and studying for a third university degree, said he wanted to pass on the joys of pet therapy to others.

Murder, Mafia and a Fresh Start The theory of using animals as agents of socialization and relaxation dates back to the 18th century. Later Sigmund Freud and Florence Nightingale favored the use of dogs or other pets during sessions or while treating patients. It is also a way of tackling solitude within the towering walls at the medium-security facility in northern Italy, set up in 2000 as an experimental project designed to cater to prisoners who wish to study or learn work skills. While 78 percent of prisoners in Italian jails go on to become repeat offenders, in Bollate just 20 percent do so. With training for cooks, electricians and carpenters, as well as courses such as painting, yoga and gardening on offer, there’s a waiting list to get in. In exchange for a chance to spend their mornings playing tennis, learning a foreign language or playing with dogs, inmates must agree to conditions including living with sexual offenders, traditionally housed separately. Nicolo Vergani, 25, a former Red Cross volunteer, said he wanted to work with animals once he has finished serving time for sexual acts with minors, and hopes to specialize in zoology after he gains his biological science degree. He said his favorite dog is ��Carmela, because she arrived and didn’t know what to do. She was so scared, sort of like us when we arrive in prison.�� ��Now, like us, she too is getting used to the experience,�� he said.