Inmates Find Meaning in Class on Connections with Animals

Boulder Art Behind Bars has been changing lives for almost 20 years.

Wolves are a model for many students in the Art Behind Bars class. Photo shows wolf in birch trees
Wolves are a model for many of the students. Photo: Holly Kuchera/Shutterstock

By Zazie Todd, PhD

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For almost 20 years, Dr. Marc Bekoff, scientist and author of many books including The Emotional Lives of Animals and Canine Confidential, has been teaching a class at Boulder (Colorado) County Jail. Inmates must apply to join the class, which meets once a week and allows them to express themselves via different artistic media. It focuses on topics such as conservation, animal behaviour, and the inmates’ well-being. A new website, Boulder Art Behind Bars showcases the class and the work of the inmates.

The class is part of Jane Goodall’s Roots and Shoots program, which aims to “foster respect and compassion for all living things”. Goodall even visited the class in 2015 and has kept in contact with some of the students. The website was developed in collaboration with artisan and web designer Stephanie Wencl.

The class has a profound effect on the inmates who take part. Writing about the class in his Psychology Today article, Art Behind Bars: Animals, Compassion, Freedom, and Hope, Dr. Bekoff says,
“The class and the students' artwork give them meaningful experiences, and in their drawings, sculptures, and writing, they express hope and trust. The work they do provides a forum for deep and informative discussions about other animals, nature, their connections to the outer world, and themselves.”
This is apparent in the art produced by the inmates. The Boulder Art Behind Bars website shows examples of their writing, drawing, jewellery-making, and other artworks. It is divided into sections such as creativity and expression, softening and vulnerability, and trust and hope. These sections show that the work of the class is not just related to animals, but also to gaining a deeper understanding of the self and of people’s role in society and in the natural world.

In the section on acceptance, self-confidence and integration, we learn that
“Wolves are a strong model for many of the students because they have been wiped out of their historical range and in some areas they are making a comeback because they have been reintroduced to their former communities. While many people accept them, there are many who don’t.” 
Like many others, I also love wolves and find them fascinating animals. So I was intrigued to learn that they are an important symbol for many of the students. Given the way that wolves are both loved and hated by different people, I can see that discussion of wolves would be an important and valuable part of the class.

There are many success stories of inmates who have integrated back into society, and Dr. Bekoff shares a number of them in his essay. Here is one that I especially enjoyed reading:
“One day as I was cycling through Boulder, someone called out, “Hey, Doctor Coyote!” and it turned out that he had been in my Roots & Shoots class and was determined to never re-enter corrections facilities. He had worked himself up to being a road manager for the Department of Transportation.”
One former student even named his son after Marc.

One thing that all teachers know is how much we can learn from the process of teaching itself. Teaching is not a one-way transmission of information from teacher to student; rather the interactions with students cause us to reflect on our own knowledge and learn more about ourselves and our place in the world. One of the great things about Dr. Bekoff’s essay is that he reflects on what he has learned from teaching the class. He says,
“My experience at the jail had positive effects on the way I taught at the University of Colorado. The students' enthusiasm and curiosity also helped me change some of the preconceived notions I had about inmates. Our discussions about topics including fairness, resilience, rehabilitation, retribution, compassion, freedom, justice, restorative justice, and hope were, at times, riveting.”
I found reading about the program very inspiring, and I can imagine many people who are not inmates would also enjoy taking part in such a class! So it is good news that people who are in a situation that is difficult, and where they are going to need to do a lot of work to integrate back into society, can benefit from the class.

Perhaps the last word should go to one of the things Dr. Bekoff realized from the class:
“Among the many lessons I've learned are that uninformed stereotypes don't work, and there is always hope.”
You can read an essay by a former inmate who took this class here: The healing power of art and animals for inmates: Moon Bear Has a Place.

Zazie Todd, PhD, is the award-winning author of Wag: The Science of Making Your Dog Happy and Purr: The Science of Making Your Cat Happy. She is the creator of the popular blog, Companion Animal Psychology, writes The Pawsitive Post premium newsletter, and also has a column at Psychology Today. Todd lives in Maple Ridge, BC, with her husband, one dog, and two cats. 

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