Hens in Prison — and Loving It!
Reading Time: 5 minutes
The British Hen Welfare Trust, who re-home commercial caged hens, have placed 199 hens at Guys Marsh Prison in Dorset, UK. It’s part of a rehabilitation program for the prisoners, called “Project Jail Bird.” Results have already been encouraging. Prison Officer Wayne Walters who’s helping coordinate the project says, “A dozen prisoners are assigned to looking after the hens on a daily basis and most have benefited from caring for the birds, with prison officers seeing marked improvements in prisoner behavior and moods.”
The hens have taken to their new surroundings with great enthusiasm. Their large enclosure is a far cry from the small cages they were trapped in as commercial layers. It’s part polytunnel and part mesh netting, offering them plenty of space to run around, explore, and forage. It offers good ventilation while providing shelter from the rain and wind.
Project Jail Bird was introduced at the prison after Deputy Governor Steve Robertson suggested the idea as a therapeutic activity for the prisoners. He’d kept chickens himself and understood the emotional benefits it could bring. Did other staff think the inmates would benefit? He asked colleagues and quickly found like-minded folk among the staff, who thought it was a great idea.
Caring for animals can be very therapeutic, improving people’s emotional wellbeing, and giving them a positive focus during difficult times. In a tough prison environment, Steve felt chickens could support prisoner rehabilitation and improve their mental health. A sense of normality can be hard to find in a prison environment, but caring for hens helps prisoners to relax, feel normal, and let go of their anxieties.
In his 14 years working as a Prison Officer, Wayne Walters had dealt with some tough and dangerous men. He felt inspired by Steve’s suggestion to try something different. He thought Project Jail Bird would help the inmates cope with life inside the prison walls, as well as provide rehabilitation for their eventual release.
Wayne persuaded the prison management that the idea had merit and would benefit the prisoners. Governor, James Lucas, gave him permission to create a hen enclosure inside some derelict polytunnels. Wayne took up the role of Livestock and Project Management Instructional Officer, and with the support of colleagues, he contacted the British Hen Welfare Trust to rehome some hens.
Prisoner J was the first to volunteer to help with the project. Keen to get the enclosure ready for the new arrivals, he worked with Wayne to transform a derelict bit of land into a hen paradise. The men had no carpentry skills, but over two-months, they turned an unused area of the prison into a hen enclosure, complete with hand-made flower boxes, created by prisoners.
The first delivery of 49 hens was a time of great excitement and anticipation. The hens were all scruffy, featherless, and scared. But they settled into their new surroundings quickly, the feathers grew back, and they surprised everyone by laying lots of eggs, despite allegedly being “spent!”
“Spent” is a term to describe hens who are no longer laying enough eggs to be commercially viable. They kept the prison supplied with over 100 eggs every day. Eggs were sold to prison officers, with proceeds going towards the upkeep of the hens, and some eggs were given to prisoners too.
Project Jail Bird was such a success that the prison adopted a further 150 hens, saving them from slaughter at the end of their commercial lives. The hens were taken from their cages in the morning and put behind bars in the afternoon. Not a single bird complained!
In fact, there was much chicken chatter as they explored their heavenly new environment. Security couldn’t have been better — there was no risk of foxes getting over the prison walls! However, the hens are shut away at night, as a precautionary measure, because sometimes rats do get into the prison grounds. Staff and prisoners alike continue to enjoy the eggs.
Jane Howorth, the founder of the British Hen Welfare Trust, accompanied the hens to their new home. She said, “What really struck me was the effort that both Wayne and Prisoner J had put into Project Jail Bird. They have created a fantastic facility for hens out of wasted space, and in so doing given the prisoners at Guys Marsh the opportunity to learn new skills, and of course, given the hens a wonderful second chance in life”.
The skills learned by the prisoners, and the benefits of working with the hens, have surpassed everyone’s expectations. Wayne says, “Those working with the hens are there for much of the day tending to the hens’ every need. The impact has been incredibly positive.”
One of the prisoners had been segregated from the others because he was struggling to cope with prison life. He attacked other inmates, causing injuries, and grievous bodily harm. Prison Officer Wayne felt that looking after a hen would help this man, so after discussions, he was given a limping hen to care for inside his cell. The prisoner took to the hen immediately, and the two became great companions. Their friendship enabled the prisoner to control his temper, which in turn meant he was able to return to the regular wing with the other inmates.
Jane Howorth was delighted to hear positive feedback from the prison. She said, “The hens are not just enjoying their new free-range lifestyle, they’re actually helping the men to better cope with prison and giving them a fresh perspective on life too. This project offers a win-win situation, and clearly illustrates that it’s not just a case of people helping to save the lives of hens, but that hens can help people too.”
Sometimes hens that have had a hard life appeal to prisoners, because they can empathize with the bird’s circumstances — many prisoners have had hard lives too. Animals provide non-judgemental companionship and they don’t care what you’ve done in the past or why. They treat you like anyone else, and if you’re good to them, they’ll respond in kind. This makes them easier to connect with than humans, who can often be judgemental and difficult, or who might have emotional and behavioral problems of their own. Hens can be great companions, who lift your spirits and improve your mood, regardless of your circumstances.
The British Hen Welfare Trust finds homes for more than 60,000 hens every year, supported by more than 900 volunteers around the UK.
Originally published in the August/September 2020 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.