There is a lot of history in the Bangkwang Prison near Bangkok. It has been in existence since the 1930s and it is also home to some 700 feral cats. Although most people are likely to want to get out of there as soon as possible, the cats obviously found it comfortable enough that they would call it home.
The wardens at the prison have tried to get the cats off-site for decades, but they just keep coming back. That is when they decided to do something interesting, they would make lemonade out of lemons. The program they came up with a number of years ago was to allow the feral cats inside the prison to be adopted by prisoners. Many of them rarely have visitors and are sometimes serving lifetime sentences. The cats had the ability to reduce the rodent population and they could also reduce the aggression of some of the inmates.
Nobody is really sure why the program got started at Bangkwang but it has been done in other areas of the world as a type of therapy for years. In 2012, 39 different states in the United States had prison animal programs. Those programs often include dogs but sometimes would also include cats.
The Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, Indiana is a good example. They house approximately 2300 male inmates and have been around for more than two decades. The administrators at the prison teamed up with the animal shelter Fried’s to create the unique program.
The number of cats that are in the program has been as high as 75 and each feline has its own ID badge. An application and approval process for each inmate is also necessary but once they are adopted, they will live in the cell with the inmate as long as they are in prison. Treats and toys are bought by the inmates and they build them cat furniture. They even watch each other’s cats when necessary. The cats will go inside of the prison everywhere with their owners on leashes but at other prisons, they may be able to roam free.
The popularity of the program is seen in the waiting list and strict requirements associated with the program.
“To have a cat, the offender must have a job,” Pam James, the public information officer at Indiana State Prison, tells mental_floss. “He purchases all the food and litter, and all that comes through his offender trust account. If they get out on parole, the cat would go with them. But if they have a conduct report for behavior, then they would have to relinquish the cat by sending it home, or it could be put up for adoption. Then there’s not usually any way for them to get the cat back.”
The prisoners who have cats will typically be on their best behavior because they want to stay in the program. There also tends to be less tension between the inmates and guards when cats are in the cellblock.
A deep attachment is formed between the inmate and the cat. In Scotland at the maximum-security HMP Shotts prison, one of the prisoners said his cat was the first thing he had shown affection for in 7 years.
“The offenders treat the pets like their children,” James says. “It’s soothing. It’s something that just loves them back. The prisoners have something in their life that gives them unconditional love.”
It seems as if prisoners who adopt cats also benefit psychologically as well. Dr. Stuart Bassman, a psychologist who helps prisoners assimilate into normal life says that many of those inmates abused animals when they were younger. The relationship may also go in both directions. A three-year study in Chicago showed that 65% of people arrested for animal crimes also committed violent acts against people. In 2013, the ASPCA partnered with the National District Attorneys Association to put out a guide for criminal justice professionals about that connection.
The inmates who care for the cats are able to make amends for their past abuses of other animals. Bassman also feels that the idea of cats having nine lives helps prisoners on emotional levels as well.
“The cat can represent a new beginning,” he says. “The person that’s incarcerated, when they think that they might have another life like the cat, that they might be able to ‘recycle’ themselves, it can be very hopeful and helpful.”
It may be that the prisoners help to keep the animals safe and redeem themselves in the process. Maleah Stringer, the executive director of the Animal Protection League shelter in Anderson, Ind. says that animals in prison are not in danger any more than they are if they were to be adopted by the general public.
The program at Indiana’s maximum-security Pendleton Correctional Facility got its start in April 2015. Known as FORWARD (Felines and Offenders Rehabilitation with Affection, Reformation and Dedication), it is helping both animals and inmates. “There’s no more risk of the animals being hurt in prison than there is when we adopt to the normal public,” she says. “The guys stay out of trouble because they know if they get in trouble, they’re going to lose the program. We’ve had more issues with mistreated animals coming back from adoptions than we ever do from the prison program.”
When all is said and done, both the animals and the inmates benefit. The prison can begin reforming the inmates while they are still behind bars and shelter cats get a loving home. If a prisoner who is part of the program is released from the Indiana State prison, they even take the cat home with them.
Letters have been received by both Fried’s and the Animal Protection League thanking them for the opportunity they provided. One convict even wrote about his feline friend: “Ziggy is a constant joy to me, and he’s brought me so much love and happiness; I’m not sure I could have found [them] without him.”
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