How do domestic cats help to rehabilitate prisoners in jail?

The question in the title was prompted because of a story currently in the online news media (San Francisco Chronicle) about a program at Laramie County jail in which domestic cats are being introduced into the jail to help rehabilitate selected prisoners. Black Dog Animal Rescue and the Laramie County Sheriff’s Department created the “Meow Mates” program. The idea is to take rescue cats from shelters (not ideal places for a cat) and take them to the jail where they can become better socialised which allows them to be more suited for adoption. The program benefits cats as well as inmates.

Lt. Jennifer Stevens with a foster cat Sully inside Laramie County jail
Lt. Jennifer Stevens with a foster cat Sully inside Laramie County jail. Photo: Michael Cummo/The Wyoming Tribune Eagle via AP.
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Laramie County Sheriff’s Lt Jennifer Stephens said that there is research which shows that the presence of animals in a correctional facility improves the welfare of the inmates. The San Francisco Chronicle cites a 2006 study which concluded that inmates found the environment less stressful when they interacted with companion animals. There was also an improved relationship between inmates and staff and between fellow inmates. Self-control improved as well and therefore I presume there was less hostility and aggravation in the jail.

The inmates of Laramie County jail are keen on the programme. Stephens said that the inmates were excited about the prospect of meeting their rescue cats. Stephens is well suited in organising this program because she used to work as a veterinary technician. She brought foster cats to work which allowed the inmates to see them and they wanted to be involved.

Many different species of domestic animal are used in what are called Prison Animal Programs (PAP). A study on the researchgate.net website titled: “Rehabilitation in Prison: an Examination of Prison Animal Programs” dated 2016, usefully refers to Cat PAPs.

So how do cats and other domestic animals help inmates? I think I’ll approach the question from two viewpoints (1) my own and (2) those of scientists and experts.

My thoughts

I don’t think you can divorce the benefits to prisoners to those of the cat owning public at large. Hundreds of millions of citizens across the planet benefit from their cat companions. They have a calming presence on people. They slow you down. Once you have a good relationship with your cat you have an instant friend who is utterly reliable. They are always there for you. They are trusting and therefore the prisoner can learn trust. And you have to have patience in dealing with a domestic cat to get the best out of them. Prisoners will therefore learn patience and self-control.

It is also an educational experience to interact with a domestic cat. You learn about animal welfare and about how animals think. This must broaden the mind which in turn, I would hope, leads to introspection about personal behaviour which in turn should lead to an improvement in that behaviour. You could argue that if cats at Wyoming County Jail are being socialised by interacting with prisoners, the prisoners are being gently rehabilitated, or you might say socialised themselves. It is an example of mutual socialisation, arguably.

Developing a successful relationship with a cat must also improve self-esteem in prisoners. I’m sure many prisoners have low self esteem. If a prisoner can gently train a cat to do something like fetch, that simple task carried out successfully would probably help their self esteem. It does not have to be training. Simply gaining a cat’s trust and affection is great for self-esteem. The interactions would also occupy their minds and entertain them. Boredom must be an issue at prison.

Experts

The experts say that cats are used prisons as part of the human-animal bond experience. They are used in a rehabilitative capacity. They help prisoners to show empathy towards another living creature. Inmates are responsible for caring for the cat which helps develop a responsible attitude. It also helps prisoners to learn respect for others and patience, as I mentioned.

PAPs worldwide

Although PAPs are probably more commonplace in developed countries, they can happen spontaneously in other countries as is the case in Bangkwang Prison just north of Bangkok. Feral cats appear to have congregated around the prison grounds because it was a food source. They were treated as a nuisance for decades but eventually the attitude of prison wardens turned the problem on its head and decided to use the cats as a rehabilitative tool. They invited the cats into be adopted by prisoners many of whom were serving lifetime sentences. These prisoners saw very few visitors. This not only improved the temperament of prisoners by reducing anger and aggression, the cats also helped to keep down the rat population.

There’s nothing really clever or mysterious about the benefits that domestic cats bring to people because we see it all the time. Domestic cats would not exist if there was no human benefit. Even small things like the cat’s purr when petting a cat is benficially calming. It requires gentleness to elicit it from a cat. If you can teach prisoners that gentleness brings reward, it must be beneficial to them. And calmness must be gold dust in a prison.

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