“Prisons are hostile places,” she said in her office, wearing a tight bun, a baton and combat boots. “And of course, when you see an animal giving affection and generating these positive feelings, that logically causes a change in behavior and a change in mindset.”
Prisoners informally adopt the cats, working together to care for them, sharing their food and bedding, and in some cases, building small homes for them. In return, cats provide something invaluable in a prison notorious for overcrowding and squalid conditions: love, affection and acceptance.
“Sometimes, she gets depressed and it's like she feels you're a little down,” said Reynaldo Rodriguez, 48, who is scheduled to go to prison until 2031 after being convicted of firearms possession. “She comes and sticks to you. She'll touch her face to yours.”
The pairing of convicted criminals and animals is nothing new. During World War II, German prisoners of war in New Hampshire adopted wildlife as pets, including, according to one account, a bear cub.
Formal prisoner-animal bonding programs became more popular in the late 1970s, and after consistently achieving positive results, these programs expanded throughout the world, including Japan, the Netherlands, and Brazil.
It has become especially popular in the United States. In Arizona, prisoners train wild horses to patrol the US border with Mexico. In Minnesota and Michigan, prisoners train dogs for the blind and deaf. In Massachusetts, prisoners help care for injured or sick wildlife, including hawks, coyotes and raccoons.
“You devote yourself to the cat. You tend to it, you watch it, you give it love.”
Dennis Carmona Rojas, prisoner
Beatriz Villavina Domínguez, a researcher in Spain who reviewed 20 trials, said that pairing prisoners with dogs has been repeatedly shown to lead to “lower recidivism rates, improved empathy, improved social skills, and a safer and more positive relationship between prisoners and prison officials.” Separate studies of such programs.
Dogs were the most commonly used animal in prisons, followed by horses, and in most programs, the animals were brought to the prisoners, or vice versa. In Chile, prisoners have developed an organic relationship with the stray cats that live alongside them.
However, there was a time when the relationship was not so positive. A decade ago, the cat population was growing out of control and many cats were getting sick, including contracting a contagious infection that left some cats blind. Carla Contreras Sandoval, a prison social worker who has two cat tattoos, said the situation is “stressing the inmates themselves.”
So, in 2016, prison officials finally allowed volunteers to come care for the cats. A Chilean organization called Felinnos Foundation has since worked with Humane Society International to systematically collect all the cats to be treated, spayed and neutered. They have now reached almost every one.
Sandoval said the program's success is due in part to the inmates. Prisoners collect cats that need care and bring them to volunteers.
One day, four women dragged cat carriers into the prison, searching for a number of cats, including Lucky, Aquila, Drupon, her six new kittens, and Nunez's cat, Ugly.
The yard was chaotic, crowded for a prisoner's soccer match, but the prisoners politely made way for the women.
Quickly, men cradling cats in tattooed arms came down the stairs along the courtyard, handing the animals through the prison bars to the volunteers. At one stop, 57-year-old Dennis Carmona Rojas, an inmate serving an eight-year sentence for a gun charge, was engrossed in a litter of kittens in a box. He said he helped raise several kittens in his cell, and recounted one instance in which he fed special milk to a litter box after the mother died during childbirth.
“You devote yourself to the cat. You take care of him, you watch him, you give him love,” he said, smiling to show off his missing front teeth. “The feeling from that — there’s nothing bad about it, man.”
This article originally appeared on New York times.