Pets in Prison Soften the Hardest of Hearts

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Cat sitting on green grass

Prison might be the last place you’d expect to encounter a furry feline – but the cuddly little critters are a regular feature at Brisbane Womens’ Correctional Centre, which has run a foster kitty program since 2010 in conjunction with the RSPCA.

Prison supervisor Marilyn Cook, who started the program, says it benefits both inmates and cats – those in custody get the rare opportunity to have a ‘bit of normality in their lives,’ while the cats receive much needed love and attention.

There are eight ‘units’ at the facility dedicated to housing cats and kittens, and each can accommodate either two adult cats or one adult cat and three kittens. While some cats are permanent residents due to health or behavioural issues, the vast majority are re-homed after their stint behind bars. Often, they are adopted by the families of inmates – or by the inmates themselves upon release.

Inmates are taught how to care for cats – and are involved in their feeding, grooming and entertainment. In some cases, inmates nurse sick or injured cats back to health.

Those who want to be involved in the program must work for it by demonstrating continual good behaviour – and getting in is seen as a significant reward.

Applicants must first undergo a rigorous examination and training process before being accepted – naturally, those with convictions for offences such as animal cruelty are not accepted.

Other Prison Animal Programs

The Brisbane Women’s Prison cat program is just one of many initiatives involving animals in prisons both here and overseas which have highlighted the therapeutic benefits of pets.

Things are run a little differently at Indiana State Prison. Rather than the animals being collectively cared for, inmates can apply to adopt their very own cat, who lives in their cell for the duration of their time in custody. ‘Owning’ a cat teaches inmates care and responsibility, helping with rehabilitation.

Similar programs have been implemented at other prisons – and they aren’t just limited to cats. At the Purdy Correctional Centre for Women in Washington state, inmates can adopt and train neglected dogs as part of the Prison Pet Partnership. What’s more, some of the dogs are trained as service dogs to help individuals with a disability. Thus far, inmates have been involved in training therapy dogs, dogs to assist persons suffering from illnesses such as Multiple Sclerosis, and dogs to help those who experience seizures.

In that regard, the Prison Pet Partnership is a win-win for all involved, with the facilitators of the program stating:

“Our program benefits all involved — the animals who are given the chance to lead lives of service, the inmates who learn valuable skills so they may find gainful employment upon release, and the individuals with disabilities who receive well-trained dogs to help increase their level of independence.”

Prisons which implement such programs say they have a positive effect on inmates. At the Purdy Correctional Centre, for instance, not a single one of the women who have been involved in the program has returned to prison.

And prison officers at the Oakwood Maximum Security Prison in Ohio – which caters to inmates who have severe mental health issues – say inmates who were allowed to keep pets over the course of a year exhibited less violent behaviours and were also less likely to attempt suicide.

The positive feedback gives hope that similar initiatives will spread across more prisons both here and overseas – giving inmates and animals a second chance at a better life.

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Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim

Ugur Nedim is an Accredited Criminal Law Specialist with 25 years of experience as a Criminal Defence Lawyer. He is the Principal of Sydney Criminal Lawyers®.

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