Cats in jail

Many people know how calming it can be to have a cat around. Yes, it can be infuriating as well, but there's definitely feel-good factor that goes with having a cat. In fact having, playing with, and caring for a cat has recognized medical benefits. An increasing number of professionals now use animals, including cats, as part of patient care. This relatively new field is called an animal associated therapy - AAT for short or AAA (animal associated activities). For example, cats have helped in work with autistic children, those with motor co-ordination difficulties.

Psychologists say that cats make better pets for neurotic people than (for example) dogs. Dogs are so responsive to the humans they bond with that they take on their owners’ emotional issues, including a canine version of the neurosis. Cats have well-defined boundaries - they are emotionally stable and remain stable even when their humans are stressed. They might find even a stressed human unpleasant and avoid him - giving the human a reason to tone down his behaviour.

So perhaps it is not surprising that cats and prisoners should be a good match. Feral cats are no strangers to prisons. Many prisons have a population of feral cats which keep the place rodent-free. But resident prison cats can do far more for the inmates than keep the rat population at bay. This has been shown in a number of cases where prisoners were actually encouraged to interact and care for the cats, and in some cases keep them as their own pets.

In mid 1980s one of Switzerland penitentiary for men started an experimental program simply called 'The Cat'. Prisoners were allowed, on a volunteer basis, to have their own cat in their cells or/and outside. The program was strictly monitored to make sure that cats were well cared for and safe. The program was reviewed in 2003. The report showed that inmates who cared for a cat found that the pet 'was a means of coping with loneliness, a living creature which they could trust and was non-judgmental; taking care of an animal was also a generally accepted way of showing and giving affection in prison and quite often resulted in an emotional state that facilitated psychological treatment.' The report of that experiment is given in more detail here.

An equally positive outcome has been seen in other prisons across the world. For example, in an Indiana State Prison (a maximum security prison for men) many inmates are allowed a cat and are fiercely protective of their pet. The men take excellent care of their cats, with some going so far as to make cat toys and cat furniture. Unlike in the prison in Switzerland, the Indiana State Prison, 'Cat' program was actually initiated by the cats themselves. The furry jailbirds made their own way into the prison, and were adopted by the inmates on a ad-hoc basis. But now the program is fully supported by all prison staff . The calming effect of the cats changed many of the prisoners for the better. In many cases it reduced an inmate’s anger and taught self-control (you can read the full account of the Indiana State Prison cats here.

Some prisons nowadays have a close and fruitful working relationship with cat charities. The inmates of the Four Pocahontas Correctional Unit in Chesterfields, USA are involved in helping to rehabilitate some of the cats from the Jackson County Animal Shelter before the cats are put up for adoption. The inmates here also did an invaluable job of helping cats abandoned after Hurricane Katrina. Peggy Lynch, the coordinator of the program has nothing but praise for the program: "It's probably the nicest shelter that they (the cats) could ever land in, so far as the amount of love and attention [goes], ..... I walked in and it was just amazing — just this total sense of calm... They seem to blossom out here."

On the other side of the world in South Africa, members of the The Emma Animal Rescue Society (TEARS), are working closely with the prisoners and wardens of the Pollsmoor Prison. This is a maximum security facility which is also a home to a large feral cat colony. The prisoners invited in the original cats. In some cases, they hung sheets from their windows for feral cats to climb, and then shared their food with them. With the cat population getting out of control Rita Brock from TEARS took action. She approached the authorities for permission to introduce a trap-neuter-return program and to give the prisoners proper food and veterinary care to help them with the feral cats they'd adopted. To her relief the authorities granted permission. It was a win-win situation. Both the inmates and the staff love the cats, and for the inmates the cats are great company. The cats meanwhile have a home and are well looked after.

But convincing authority of the benefits of cats in the prisons is not always an easy task.At the Bath Institution, a medium-security prison near Kingston in Ontario, Canada a problem arose. A feral colony of cats had been on the prison premises - probably for the last 20 years or so - when the prison officials decided that the cats had to go. This was a blow for both the feral cats, which risked being put down, and for the inmates who loved them. The prisoners circulated a petition to keep the cats and got 300 signatures from a population of 345 inmates. As cat eviction time drew near the inmates became more and more upset. The situation was getting out of hand.

Fortunately Mary Shaw, a veterinary technician in Kingston and the director of the Spay Neuter Kingston Initiative got involved. With help from Suzanne Stevenson a retired former worker, she persuaded the prison officials to allow the cats to stay. Since then the cats have received veterinary care. Special year-round shelters have been installed on the prison grounds for the felines to live in during the winter. The prisoners are happy and the cats are thriving.


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