The Bird Man of Alcatraz was a 1962 movie starring Burt Lancaster which told the story of inmate Robert Stroud. This was the largely fictionalised account of a convicted murder who behaved badly in prison and so spent most of his time on "The Rock" in solitary confinement.
Stroud attempted to brighten his miserable existence by adopting a sparrow as a pet. According to the film, he then built up a collection of birds and becomes an expert on bird diseases. Naturally the movie rather romanticised the story!
Dangerous Criminal and Bird Lover
The truth was that Robert Stroud was dangerous Psychopath with a high IQ. He was one of the United States’ most notorious criminals and spent 17 years incarcerated at Leavenworth Penitentiary where he reared birds and became a respected ornithologist. He was later transferred to Alcatraz but never kept birds there as the regulations did not permit this.
Pets in Prison
The movie may have diverged somewhat from the truth in the interest of better entertainment but it did serve to highlight the possible benefits of pets to prisoners. It may seem like a rather fanciful idea but pets were and still are a feature of the prison system on both sides of the pond.
The Ministry of Justice in the UK say that there are 27 animals being kept in top security jails. These are mainly budgerigars but there are also two guinea pigs behind bars in the UK! The high security prison with the most pets is Maghaberry Prison near Lisburn, Northern Ireland, where there are 18 budgies. This is an establishment in which there have been serious clashes between prisoners and wardens. The former inmates include the serial killer and paedophile Robert Black and the infamous Ulster loyalist killer Michael Stone.
Seven Budgies and a Serial Killer
Wakefield Prison in West Yorkshire is home to seven budgies. This Category A jail houses some of the country’s highest profile criminals including rapists and murderers. This was where serial killer Dr Harold Shipman was held and where he committed suicide in his cell.
Canines for Criminals
In the US, prisoners are allowed to keep a variety of pets including rescue dogs which they take in and train. This scheme has proved to offer significant benefits to the inmates as well as to the dogs because building a relationship with an animal improves self-esteem.
New Rules for Doing Bird
In the UK, inmates of lower security prisons are permitted to keep pets as part of the incentives and earned privileges scheme if they have behaved well and the governor agrees. These privileges were tightened up under Chris Graying, the former justice secretary. The latest rules mean that new animals can no longer be brought in or acquired by inmates but prisoners are allowed to keep existing pets until they die. A parrot would have been a good choice!