Animals and Inmates: Science Behind Bars

Teaching science to inmates is very educational and rewarding

Posted Sep 23, 2009

For ten years I've been teaching animal behavior and conservation biology at the Boulder (Colorado) County Jail as part of the Jane Goodall Institute's Roots & Shoots Program. The course is one of the most popular in the jail. Students have to earn the right to enroll and they work hard to get in it.

While there's student turnover, we're all pleasantly surprised at how science connects the inmates to various aspects of nature and that many find it easier to connect with animals than with people. Animals don't judge them and many of the inmates had lived with dogs, cats, and other companions who were their best friends. They trust and empathize with animals in ways they don't with humans.

Nonetheless, there remains a distorted view of how animals treat one another. At one of the first meetings someone was talking out of turn as I was setting up the curriculum. One of the guys yelled, "Hey, shut up, you're acting like an ass. This guy's here to help us." I responded, "You’ve just paid him a complement." I explained that animals could be kind and empathic. While there's competition and aggression there's also a lot of cooperation, empathy, and reciprocity. I explained that these behaviors are examples of "wild justice" and this idea made them rethink what it means to be an animal. They've had enough of nature red in tooth and claw and many lament, "Look where that 'I'm behaving like an animal' excuse got me."

Topics we actively discuss include general aspects of animal behavior, the evolution of social behavior, evolution and creationism, biology and religion, sustainability, extinction, animal protection and environmental ethics, eugenics, environmental enrichment, balance in nature, complex webs of nature, cultural views of animals, and who we are in the grand scheme of things -- anthropocentric influences on animals and the environment. Our exchanges rival those that I've had at university classes.

Many of the students see the class as building community with animals and with people. They yearn to build healthy relationships. I use examples of the social behavior of group-living animals such as wolves as a model for developing and maintaining long-term friendships among individuals who must work together not only for their own good but also for the good of the group.

From time to time I ask the inmates what they get of the class. Here are some responses:

--The course is healing.

--I've learned a lot about understanding and appreciating animals as individuals.

--The class balances scientific rigor with social consciousness.

--The class gives us a sense of connection to webs of life.

--What I do counts. I now have a vision for the future.

--The class models healthy prosocial ways of living and working in the world.

--The class makes me feel better about myself.  

It's clear that science inspires the students and gives them hope. I've been told that because of the class some of their kids are more likely to go into science. I know some students have gone back to school while others have made contributions in time and money to conservation organizations. Some have gone to work for humane societies. One student went on to receive a master's degree in nature writing.

Science and humane education have helped the inmates connect with values that they otherwise wouldn't have done. Science opens the door to understanding, trust, cooperation, community, and hope. There's a large untapped population of individuals to whom science means a lot but they haven't had the exposure needed to further their education. By the way, I continue to get as much out of the class as the students and it's made me a better teacher on the outside.