Kimberly Collica-Cox (center, front row) and students Annalyse Lyons '20 (left, back row),
Alessandro Angelori '18 (second from right, back row) and Chris Berros '18 (right, back row) at the WCDOC.


Woman’s Best Friend in Prison?
Therapy Dogs

We often hear of dogs as being “man’s best friend,” but Associate Professor of Criminal Justice and Security Kimberly Collica-Cox has been engaged in unique research with dogs and a specific segment of the female population.

The focus is on helping incarcerated mothers. Collica-Cox, who has previously worked in corrections, was looking for a way to respond to a need in prison facilities for more programs for women. She was aware that incarceration poses challenges to women who are mothers, and thought of combining a parenting class with animal-assisted therapy (AAT) to help mitigate stress and reduce recidivism.

The Parenting, Prison, and Pups (PPP) program – the first of its kind – attempts to do just that.

It provides support for the emotional effects of the separation between mother and child, and vice versa, during incarceration. If mothers are able to maintain a bond with their children while serving time, this can serve as a tool towards reducing future criminality, which can also improve the future success of her children.

In March 2017, the first “control” group utilizing the parenting curriculum, but not AAT, was launched at the Metropolitan Correctional Center, a federal prison in Westchester. In February 2018, the first program incorporating AAT was launched at this facility. It consists of 14 classes, in addition to before and after interviewing sessions, and therapy dogs who serve as surrogates for children, as the women confront emotions such as fear, guilt, depression, and trauma.

What is it about dogs?

Says Collica-Cox, “Dogs can facilitate communication between human beings. It is the dog – who is loving, non-judgmental, and always happy to see you – who makes this possible.”

Reducing recidivism

US Department of Justice data indicates that approximately 70 percent of incarcerated women in America are responsible for a minor child. Since incarceration causes a disruption to the mother-child bond, studies have also found that both inmate mothers and their children are at high risk for future incarceration.

In fact, according to Collica-Cox, children of an incarcerated parent are six times more likely to be involved with the criminal justice system.

For this reason, reducing recidivism is an important aspect of her work.

“By maintaining or restoring mother-child bonds, we will be able to positively impact recidivism for mothers, especially since child contact during incarceration can positively impact post-release success for women, as well as intergenerational offending patterns, which minimizes their children's risk for incarceration,” says Collica-Cox. 

A collaborative effort

The idea for the PPP program was first proposed by Collica-Cox and Lisa Rae Johnson of the Metropolitan Correctional Center (MCC), a federal jail managed by the Bureau of Prisons in Lower Manhattan. The resulting partnership has been between Pace, the MCC and the Westchester County Department of Correction (WCDOC), a county jail, and the Good Dog Foundation, a non-profit with a focus on therapy-dog training and deployment.

The program is supported by a number of internal grants from Pace, in addition to $45,000 in external funding from a New York metropolitan donor who wishes to remain anonymous.

Positive results

Although data has not yet been obtained on the results of the parenting curriculum combined with AAT, there have already been positive outcomes.

All participating female inmates in programs completed thus far expressed that they have experienced improved relationships with their families, as well as gained more effective communication skills, which was a primary goal.

Additionally, 64% of the women from the WCDOC facility said the class provided them with enhanced parenting skills. These include engaging in effective speaking and listening, receiving a positive response from their children via non-violent discipline, and enhancing problem-solving skills.

The experience has also benefitted another demographic.

Student involvement

Collica-Cox incorporates Pace students as teaching assistants to help with the program. As part of a civic engagement course on corrections, students both learn about criminal justice and incarceration, as well as how to become caring professionals with the potential to make an impact on this segment of society.

Natalia Gess ’18, Criminal Justice, and Victoria Buzzanca ’20, Sociology and Anthropology, have found the experience transformative.

Gess says, “Professor Collica-Cox, has made it interesting, thought provoking, and comfortable to work in [the prison]. Through this program, the class, and having taken other classes with her, my interest has been sparked in working in the New York City Department of Correction upon graduation from law school.”

Buzzanca says, “This experience was nothing short of amazing. Being able to help these mothers and give them a constructive outlet, as well as give them the tools they needed to be better parents in their situation, was so rewarding.”

Students also attest to the passion that Collica-Cox brings to her work.

Alex Angelori ’18, Political Science, says, “You can never find anyone more passionate and knowledgeable than Professor Collica-Cox. Not many classes will take you inside of a fully functioning jail, and she helped us to explore this.”

Recognition and future research

Collica-Cox’s work with the program has received numerous accolades.

She has been a recipient of a Pace University Bronze Medal Jefferson Award, an honored recipient for her exemplary work as a research partner by the Good Dog Foundation, a three-time award recipient by the MCC for her volunteer and community services, and an honoree for her dedication by the Rotary Club of Elmsford, NY.

In addition to continuing her work with the PPP program (animal-assisted therapy at the WCDOC is scheduled to begin in September 2018), she has research articles in progress on related subjects in criminal justice and incarceration. These include the career trajectories of women executives in corrections, the Prison Rape Elimination Act (PREA), of which she is an auditor, and work Collica-Cox has done both with inmates infected with HIV and generally on HIV related issues.

On the PPP program, we thank her – and her canine cohorts – for their great work in raising awareness of the needs of this underserved population.