Cows to prevent crime

Can cows have a positive effect on inmates in correctional facilities? According to the staff at Sörbyn in Northern Sweden the answer is yes. Inmates that work with the cows show more feelings and have more empathy. But what do the inmates think? This will be the subject of a research project that has just started on the three correctional facilities in Sweden that still have dairy herds. A reporter from Swedish National Radio visited one of them, Sörbyn outside Umeå in Northern Sweden. This is an excerpt from the story translated from Swedish.

Kim, one of the inmates at Sörbyn, is 24 years old and he is serving a six year sentence for attempted murder.

"It's the first time I work with animals like this. I like it, and I learn a lot about them. They make me calmer. They become almost like family".

There are 50 milking cows and 200 replacements on the farm, and 8 of the 40 inmates in the facility work with the cows.

According to Cecilia Fielding, psychologist and responsible for the research project, the objective with this study is to see if there are positive effects on the inmates from working with large animals.

Kim says that he used to always be stressed, but since he started working with the cows he feels a lot calmer and he can now think things through properly.

In a prestudy from 2009 the staff at this facility reported that the inmates that worked with the cows showed positive effects.

Cecilia Fielding says that they showed more empathy, took more responsibility, they felt that what they were doing was meaningful. They also learnt something new that they didn't think they were capable of doing. Stress was reduced, and so was the number of conflicts at the facility.

Erik Strömdahl, farm manager at Sörbyn, says that what is most important, the way he sees it, is the empathy this awakens in the inmates:

"When they first arrive they have this very tough attitude, but when they have seen their first calving, and have taken care of this little calf and given it the first colostrum, they ask me in the evening: Who is going to take care of this calf in the night? I tell them that the calf will be fine on its own, and they want to know if I am really sure. In the morning they tell me that they could hardly sleep for worrying about the calf. This is clearly a sign of a growing empathy, and I have seen that after a few months this empathy is transferred to humans as well. They start seeing each other in a more positive way. There is less conflict and less fighting."

Sven, 54 years old is another inmate who is serving a 10 year sentence for murder. He has been five years in a closed facility, and has recently arrived at Sörby.

"This feels meaningful, he says. To be physically tired instead of mentally tired makes you sleep better at night. Normally you just get one hour of fresh air per day, and this makes it difficult to sleep.

Before starting working with the cows Kim and Sven had to answer some questions, one of them being how much they thought that the work with the animals would affect them, on a scale from 1 to 5. Sven answered between 2 and 3. But now he says that it's a clear five.

"If nothing else", he says, "you have responsibilities, and you're not used to that when you've been locked in for so long. And caring for living creatures is a lot of fun."

Also Kim gave it a 2 when estimating the effect this would have on him.

"But if they asked me today it would be a five", he says.

Kim is surprised at the effect this has had on him, he thought that nothing could possibly change him. But apparantly anyone can be affected by animals. He thinks they should have more of these agricultural correctional facilities in Sweden.

Cecilia Fielding explains that there is a general understanding that most of us feel good when we are around animals, so then maybe we should think about the effect this could have a good effect in the correctional facilities. The inmates do something meaningful and learn something that they can use when they have served their time.

Erik Strömdahl, the farm manager also wants to point out that the inmates learn to do something useful. Most of them don't have a driver's license, they don't have anywhere to live and most of the time they have a drug or alcohol problem. At Sörbyn they have now started a stockman training, and the inmates that finish this course have the opportunity to work on other farms, and often they can also live on the farm.

"To get away from your old life and old friends, and get to live on a farm, where you're doing something you really like, that is important", says Erik.

Kim is thinking of doing this stockman training this spring.

The research project on these three correctional farms will be finished in 2014. Project leader Cecilia Fielding says that the goal with all meaningful correctional work is to prevent relapse into crime. In three years' time they will have the results from this project.

Reporter at Swedish National Radio: Agneta Johansson

Link to the radio program


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Monica Wadsworth

Monica Wadsworth
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