Prison program pairs felons and felines

A new foster-cat program at the Larch Corrections Center is improving life for inmates and felines alike. Larch, a minimum-security facility near Yacolt, WA, launched the Cuddly Catz program two weeks ago; Cuddly Cats pairs pound-bound cats with inmates who meet certain requirements (did not commit a violent crime against animals or humans; free of prison demerits for at least six months; set to remain at Larch for at least a year after receiving a program cat; and passing an extensive screening process).

The program definitely benefits the inmates. Joey Contreras and Joseph Walter share a ten-by-twelve-foot cell – and charge of Princess Natalie, a long-haired black cat. Contreras noted in an article by Paris Achen that fostering a feline has given him an increased sense of purpose. "When you're doing prison time, you get set in certain ways and forget what it's like to have everyday interactions and be compassionate," Contreras said. "It's a little different when you have an animal depending on you to survive. Animals bring out the best in people."

Walter added that prison time can turn people "mean," but the "unconditional love" of a pet brings out their softer sides.

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And it helps the cats, too. Cuddly Catz volunteer Marsha Thomas-Carney thinks Princess Natalie might have been put down if she hadn't found a home with Contreras and Walter; Thomas-Carney had been caring for the Princess, a rescue, and hoped to adopt her – but the cat sprayed, scratched, and bit, probably to get more attention in a home she had to share with other feline fosters. Thomas-Carney considered taking her to the pound, but a cat with those sorts of behavior issues isn't a good candidate for survival.

But Princess Natalie headed to Larch instead, and Thomas-Carney reports that "in just two weeks," you can already notice behavior changes in the cat; she hasn't sprayed since she got to Larch, for one thing – probably, says Walter, because she's getting all the love and attention she needs from her two new dads.

Cuddly Catz is still small-scale. It's just Princess Natalie and one other cat, Clementine, who lives with cellies Richard Amaro and William Lozano. But Larch counselor Monique Camacho has already seen the changes in Lozano. Formerly extremely shy, he's become much more social – and the prison clearly plans to expand on this good beginning; Washington State's Department of Corrections dropped $1,028 on an outdoor enclosure where inmates and cats can play in the fresh air. But past that, the program doesn't cost DoC or taxpayers anything, as volunteers supply food, litter, and toys. Royal Meow Cat Castles of Vancouver has even donated "cat condos."

At least 20 of the 50 states reported prison pet programs as of 2006, but nobody has studied exactly how many facilities offer them or what exactly they entail – and there isn't a definitive study on their effectiveness. Kansas State University's Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work published a study in 2006 stating that pet programs have the "potential to break down barriers of fear and mistrust between staff and inmates," and cited anecdotal evidence that pets in prisons reduce stress and behavior problems inside the prison – and recidivism after inmates are released. But the study warned that the data hasn't been confirmed. An inmate at Lima State Hospital in Ohio found and cared for an injured sparrow in 1975, and staffers noted "an immediate change in inmate behavior" on that ward – which needed fewer medications, and reported less violence and fewer suicides, after a year than wards without pets. And while the Birdman of Alcatraz, Robert Stroud, is famous via his seminal works on the canary species (and a portrayal of him by Burt Lancaster in the movie of the same name as a soft-spoken, gentle criminal), it's equally hard to say whether his work with the birds improved his behavior. (It really couldn't have gotten much worse.)

Read the full article by Achen here – or learn more about inmate/pet programs like the Pocatello (ID) Cell Dog Program, or the Prison Tails program at Westville (IL) Correctional Facility, by clicking the links.

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