(Editor’s Note: Michelle Sinclair is the daughter of columnist Melodie Davis; she is married and works in Washington, D.C.)
I was delighted to read about prisoners funneling energy they once spent on fights into building elaborate play structures for their cats.
Do cats belong in jail?
You might not think so (or maybe you do!) but the cats at the Indiana State Prison don't find anything strange about their neighborhood. They wandered into the maximum security men's prison years ago seeking a warm place to have their kittens, but instead of wandering back out, the kittens found food, water, and love from an unlikely source—the inmates.
I learned about the Indiana State Prison Cat Program from a blog article by therapist and cat behaviorist Diana Korten. The article is from 2007, but a quick Google search suggests that the program is alive and well today. If you'd like to read the entire piece, visit http://catodyssey.blogspot.com/2007/05/indiana-state-prison-michigan-city.html
Indiana State Prison authorities saw the calming effect the cats had on the hardened criminals under their care, and instead of dubbing the cats intruders and expelling them from the grounds, they formalized the relationship as the Indiana State Prison Cat Program. Prisoners are screened against inclinations toward animal abuse (anyone with a history or tendency in that direction is barred from owning a cat). Some of the cats are leashed, but guards keep a watchful eye on the ones who roam free.
Korten toured the prison to learn about the program, and she quotes its highest ranking officer, Major Cabanaw, in her article: "I don’t know of any other corrections facility that has a program like this—but I would recommend it for all prisons . . . it gives the offenders a reason to behave. It changes them. I’ve got guys in here who caused all kinds of problems—then they got a cat and that’s it—they settle down and haven't caused any trouble since. . . . the staff is great about keeping an eye out for [the cats]. But mostly, it's the offenders keeping them safe." And virtually no taxpayer funds go into the program—prisoners pay for their cats' expenses through work programs and donations from their families.
When my husband showed me the article, I was delighted to read about prisoners funneling energy they once spent on fights into building elaborate play structures for their cats. According to Korten, they even take turns looking after each other's cats. The animals return the favor by giving the prisoners unconditional love—a gift many of these men have never known.
Millions of pet owners can identify with the dynamic at work here. This past August, my husband and I adopted a small, gray shelter cat named Josie. I'm a cat person who hasn't had a pet since my childhood cat died of cancer when I was in college. My husband loves animals but his dearest pet as a child was a dog, so he's always been more of a dog person.
We've had some bumps along the road to adjusting to having a rambunctious young cat in our lives, but we both enjoy having Josie greet us when we get home from a long day. She even makes a beeline for the first available lap after dinner. She's a space heater, entertainment, and a source of comfort, all rolled into one.
In spite of the horrible crimes the Indiana State Prison inmates committed, they weren't born criminals, and they are still human beings. It's wonderful to know that these cats are succeeding where so many people have failed: showing the lost, the broken, and the angry the redeeming power of love.
Have you heard about similar programs or experienced the change the love of a pet can bring into your life? Write to usy with your stories and Michelle will write a follow-up column: send to or Another Way, Box 22, Harrisonburg VA 22803.
Posted 1/26/2012 7:00:00 AM