SRU researchers expand animal-assisted intervention in local prisons


Cambridge Springs Prison

A research group from Slippery Rock University will be conducting animal-assisted intervention with female inmates at State Correctional Institute in Cambridge Springs.

May 21, 2018

SLIPPERY ROCK, Pa. - Following in the footsteps of a current Slippery Rock University animal-assisted intervention study and program at a local prison, another group is launching a second initiative.

Under the direction of Yvonne Eaton-Stull, assistant professor of public health and social work, two SRU students will begin an intervention study, May 17 at the State Correctional Institute in Cambridge Springs, to help inmates with emotional afflictions and to analyze how the presence of dogs affects their well-being. This study begins just as a similar program at SCI-Mercer is winding down this month.

Easton Stull headshot


"I asked, 'What are we doing next? Where's a need?'" Eaton-Stull said to Cynthia Wright, a licensed psychology manager at SCI-Mercer. "She said there's a huge need (for treatment) and luckily I had two great students who are able to start a new project."

Christina DeAngelis, a junior dual major in psychology and social work from Pittsburgh, and Alisha Zambroski, a junior social work major from Erie, will work with as many as 48 incarcerated women at SCI-Cambridge Springs in educational treatment sessions during a 12-week span. The project is funded through two SRU grants totaling nearly $1,500, a Summer Undergraduate Research Experience grant and a College of Health, Environment and Science Research grant.

Unlike the SCI-Mercer animal-assisted intervention that treated males diagnosed with anxiety from September 2017 to May 2018, DeAngelis and Zambroski will meet with women susceptible to self-harm in a more condensed time, helping build the inmates' coping skills. They will meet with two groups of 12 female inmates once a week for six weeks without dogs, before meeting with two additional groups of 12 women once a week for six weeks implementing dogs into the treatment.

DeAngelis Headshot


"Animal-assisted intervention is really an up-and-coming practice," said DeAngelis, who along with Zambroski will lead sessions alongside Eaton-Stull and Wright in a supervised area of the prison. "There's been a lot of breakthroughs with different populations and I think it will be very rewarding to be a part of this project, especially with a population that doesn't have much research connected with it."

There is limited research with the effects of animal-assisted intervention for prisoners because of the extensive clearances to work with the population and other variables, such as disruptions in schedules and participants having to be removed from studies. DeAngelis and Zambroski are poised to conduct the research despite the challenges.

"This will be a good practical experience," said Zambroski, who is minoring in animal-assisted interventions and has facilitated groups in class but not with real clients. "The stories and things we are about to hear will be interesting and give us a lot of emotional intelligence to deal with it. We can't act surprised if we hear something disturbing; we have to just listen."

Zambroski headshot


For each session, DeAngelis and Zambroski will teach Dialectical Behavior Skills, a type of treatment using cognitive skills. For the second six-week session they will be accompanied by specially trained therapy dogs, including Eaton-Stull's black lab/beagle mix, Chevy, and Wright's Shih Tzus, Ginger and Pooky.

"We'll be teaching both groups the skills that they need," Zambroski said. "We'll have the same baseline, but then we'll add the dogs to the second sessions to implement the skills. It's going to be really interesting to see the difference adding the dogs."

The researchers will help the inmates build four basic skills: distress tolerance, mindfulness, emotion regulation and interpersonal effectiveness. An example of an exercise will include having the inmates focus on an object in the room and recognizing their responses, emotionally and using their senses.

"The treatment teaches (the inmates) to be aware of their senses," Eaton-Stull said. "Maybe there are things that they can look at to make them happy instead of whatever is stressing them out."

The researchers will administer surveys before and after the six-week period, measuring the inmates' frequency of self-harm and their coping skills.

"The better their coping, the less likely they are to return to prison," Eaton-Stull said. "If we can increase their coping and be effective while they are in prison, they should do better when they're out. If we can teach them a skill, it's going to help everyone in the long run, not only the clients but the staff who have to manage all these women."

While the prison and the inmates will benefit from this experience, so too will the students.

"This will be a big opportunity," said DeAngelis, who wants to get a master's degree in social work and perhaps work in the social-work field advocating for children. "We don't have experience except what we've done in class. I look forward to seeing that impact we have from the start to the finish."

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