Prison Cats

Prison Bars
Jail, Image Courtesy of sakhorn38, FreeDigitalPhotos.net

At many prisons, inmates have experienced a metamorphosis as a result of their interactions with cats. The following are some particularly noteworthy examples of the benefits of pet therapy at correctional institutions.

The Cat Program at Saxierriet Prison

Saxierriet penitentiary in Switzerland has implemented an innovative pet therapy program called the Cat Program through which inmate volunteers are provided with pet cats. Strict regulations are enforced to ensure the welfare of these therapy animals, and inmates may take their pets with them when they are released.

Having trustworthy, nonjudgmental companions has reduced the loneliness of participating inmates. Taking care of an animal is the only socially acceptable way of showing affection in prison, and the opportunity to do so has made the prisoners more receptive to psychological treatment. A study of participants found that they had higher self-esteem and self-confidence as a result of the program, critical elements for resocialization after release (Nef, 2004, “The Cat Programme, An Animal-Assisted Therapy at Saxierriet Prison for Men: Its Effects and Results in a Correctional Establishment”).

The Feral Cat Colony at Pollsmoor Prison

Pollsmoor Prison, a South African maximum security facility housing a large number of hardcore criminals, is also home to a feral cat colony whose members have had a transformative effect on the inmates.

Prisoners first invited the starving feral cats into their cells by hanging sheets from their windows for the cats to climb and sharing their food with them. Rita Brock and Mandy Wilson of The Emma Animal Rescue Society (TEARS), who originally came to rescue feral cats in the area that local authorities planned to eradicate, now have the ongoing responsibility of working with the prisoners and wardens to ensure that the cats receive sufficient food and medical care.

Pollsmoor inmate Wayne Hutchinson says of his cat Spookies, “she’s totally stolen my heart and changed my life around….I was abused as a child, and she has taught me how to love and learn the errors of my ways” (Sandy Robins,“The Cats of Pollsmoor Prison,” Cat Fancy Magazine – reprinted 16 April 2009 by Linda Tellington-Jones).

To read the full story of the Pollsmoor Prison cats, visit Tellington-Jones’ website.

The Cat Program at Indiana State Prison

Cat Behaviourist Diana Korten visited the Indiana State prison to interview inmates and staff about their cat program. Korten notes that it was the cats that initiated the program when they made their way onto the prison grounds and began having kittens there.

Indiana State is a maximum security facility and many of the offenders are in for murder, but the men are fiercely protective of their cats. They construct elaborate cat furniture, make cat toys, and take excellent care of their charges, cat-sitting for one another as needed. The prisoners receive unconditional love from their pets and believe that the cats have changed them in positive ways, reducing their anger and increasing their capacity for self-control.

Inmate James Stone confided to Korten, “I have a temper. One time some things happened and I was feeling pretty serious about doing something….But Raol put Jinxster in my arms, and I just held him until I didn’t need to do something anymore….During my first 15 years here, I was trouble….But Jinx changed all that. I’m a different person now.”

Administrator Vince Morton told Korten, “I’ve been here for over 25 years, and I have seen a lot of offenders transformed by the cats.” The program costs the taxpayers nothing – prisoners pay all cat-related expenses through work programs or family support.

The Pen Pals Program at Pocahontas Correctional Unit

The Chesterfield, VA, Pocahontas Correctional Unit Pen Pals program enables trusted inmates to care for abandoned feral cats. Participants socialize the cats, after which they are adopted out.

Pet cats that found themselves homeless after Hurricane Katrina were also cared for by the Pen Pals. The inmates were happy to help the sick, traumatized animals, and to do something tangible for the hurricane relief effort (Associated Press, 19 October, 2005, “Inmates Welcome Cats Orphaned by Katrina”).

The Cats of Bang Kwang Prison

Bang Kwang Prison in Thailand, like many other prisons, has become a gathering place for abandoned feral cats. Lonely inmates, many of them in jail for life, are comforted by the 700 feral cats that live on the prison grounds.

A warden at the prison said “with these cats around, inmates with brutal crimes such as murder have reduced much of their aggression and become gentler.” The cats are particularly popular among former gunmen. According to one, “when I first arrived here, I was very edgy, so full of worries and bad tempers rushing in and out. But when I began raising and playing with these cats, my mind grew calmer.” In addition to having a positive effect on the inmates, the cats earn their keep by eliminating prison rats (MCOT English News, 23 July 2008, “Bang Kwang Inmates Find Comfort in Cats’ Company”).

For more cat articles, see the main Cats page.

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