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Pet Therapy in Prison, Say What? (or… ‘If You Give an Inmate a Pet’)

If I’m completely honest, I’m the kind of person who respects the notion of going to jail/prison to pay your time for doing the crime.

–Without launching into the all too real reality of false imprisonment, and the over use of correctional facilities in place of tactics that would better serve select individuals and committers of certain crimes; aside from all that—

I admit I used to be so annoyed hearing cases of inmates earning educational degrees, working out, and partaking in all sorts of other recreational activities. I didn’t like it. If I made a jail everyone would be put in solitary confinement and forced to really think about what they’d done. You were sent there for a reason right?!

Again I admit this was a naive train of thought, judgmental, uncaring, and inconsiderate of any beneficial aspects that a place were “wrong” are sent to be “corrected” could actually have.

I cannot precisely pinpoint a source for this previous inner conviction, but unless your head is as hard as a rock, and you live under one as well, this way of thinking is difficult to maintain without effort. Well that’s how it felt for me. I wasn’t committed to that effort. Plus, it didn’t align with my more so progressive leanings. Thanks to the efforts by many who do care about rehabilitation prospects, and uphold beliefs that people can learn from their mistakes, my eyes are repeatedly opened.

I love animals. I had pets all through my childhood. I definitely believe they are assets to human life on numerous levels. It tugs at my heart strings when cherished pets of my friends and family pass. To see what the love and attention from an animal can do for not only a child, but an adult as well, it’s a beautiful thing. I love that there are many programs that incorporate all kinds of animals into their physical therapy, counseling, and thought healing programs.

But I never thought about what a pet could do for an inmate.

Pet therapy in prison, say what?

Well there are plenty of people who have thought about this, and put it into action across America and the world in fact, and the results are nothing short of amazing.

The convict and the cat. Cats aren’t just popular with old ladies.

Washington has a brand new cat foster program called Cuddly Catz, at the minimum-security Larch Corrections Center near Yacolt.

Princess Natalie, a long-haired black feline, recently came to live with Joey Contreras, 28, and inmate Joseph Walter, 37, just weeks ago in their 12-by-10-foot dormitory style cell.

The Columbian profiled the trio in their April article, Kitties in the Clink.

The program was spurred into existence following pleasant experiences the correctional center’s superintendent Eleanor Vernell, had with own her son’s cat.

Within only two weeks into the programs launch Larch employees and inmates were  already seeing the effects to the difference in the lives of the cats and the inmates.

“Participating in the program involves an extensive screening process. The main priority is to keep the animals safe. Inmate candidates must not have committed a violent crime against animals or humans, are required to be free of infractions at the prison for at least six months and will be at the prison for at least 12 months after the time they receive the cat.

The state Department of Corrections spent nearly $1,028 to build an outdoor enclosure at the prison, where the inmates and cats can take some fresh air and have more space to play. Other than that, the program costs the department nothing, Sidlo said. Community volunteers provide food, litter and other supplies, such as cat condos donated by Royal Meow Cat Castles of Vancouver.

A perk of participating in the program is living in a cell with just one roommate. Other inmates share a cell with three others. Inmates keep a journal of their cat’s progress and, ultimately, are the ones who decide when the cat is ready for adoption, said Kelly Clarke, Cuddly Catz volunteer. Cuddly Catz hopes to be able to list the cats ready for adoption on petfinder.com when the time comes.”

Princess Natalie would likely have been euthanized without the program. (the picture to the left is not Princess Natalie) She was a spraying, spraying, scratching and biting bad cat, and a grim prospect for adoption. But this program has even brought out the best in her!

I loved this part of the article:

“When you’re doing prison time, you get set in certain ways and forget what it’s like to have everyday interactions and be compassionate,” Contreras said. “It’s a little different when you have an animal depending on you to survive. Animals bring out the best in people.”

Walter said prison time can make inmates mean.

The cat’s unconditional love brings out their compassionate side, he said.”

Awww. That’s fantastic.

What’s more fantastic is that this isn’t the only program like this—there are more. (so many more!! let me tell you about a few…)

Inmates and service dogs for war vets

Inmates at Cedar Creek Corrections Center (also in WA) train service dogs to help returning Afghanistan and Iraq War veterans cope with their injuries – including post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.

The 10 participating inmates at the minimum-security prison in Capitol Forest say they appreciate the companionship. When they’re not teaching the dogs basic obedience, they live with them in their cells. They also said they have a sense of pride knowing their hard work will help a veteran as he or she transitions back to life stateside.

Read more here


Oklahoma’s Parole-a-pet program places dogs that have been rescued (from natural disasters, such as hurricane Katrina,) victims of abuse, and abandonment, and places them in an eight week stay program with the inmates apart of the 120-man prison unit within the Cimarron Correctional Facility. They are taught by dog training professionals for two weeks prior and they retrain the dogs for adoption programs.

“Dogs are surrendered to most shelters because of misbehavior. Training increases the adoption chances by 100 percent.”

If you’re interested and have a second, take a moment to read (here) what the experience has been like for the first participants of this successful program.

“Almost every prisoner in the program has said, “Do you have any idea how long it’s been since I petted a dog?””

  • Prison Pet Partnership Program
  • This Gig Harbor, Washington program occurs primarily inside the walls of the Washington State Corrections Center for Women where inmates reach out to help others by training special dogs to assist a disabled person. Volunteers currently assist by taking the dogs out into the community for important socialization training prior to placement.
  • Freedtom Tails
  • Freedom Tails brings in dogs from local shelters, that would otherwise be euthenized, and retrains them in housetraining (if necessary), socialization, and basic commands. They are then adopted out to the general public.
  • Prison PUP Program
  • This Gardner, Massachusetts program, guided by NEADS (National Education for Assistance Dog Services), involves inmates of the North Central Correctional Institution training assistance dogs.
  • Puppies Behind Bars
  • This program in New York State’s Bedford Hills Correctional Facility assigns puppies to the inmates at this maximum-security prison for women to be raised as guide dogs. Volunteer ‘puppy sitters’ take the dogs into their homes once or twice a month to expose them to things they won’t experience in prison.
  • Project Pooch
  • This Woodburn, Oregon program pairs juvenile offenders from the MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility with dogs from local shelters and rescue groups. The students provide the dogs with obedience training to prepare the dogs for placement in permanent homes in the community
  • Prison Trained K-9 Companion Program
  • From the Colorado Correctional Industries offenders learn new skills, improve self-esteem, and earn a salary by training shelter dogs to make them more adoptable. They also accept owned dogs for board and train.
  • Prison Dog Project
  • This covers a variety of programs where inmates in prisons are training dogs.
  • Hearts in Harmony Animal Assisted Therapy Group
  • Operates a project called Pawsitive Hearts, a 6-week obedience training project pairing at-risk kids with rescue dogs from a humane society. The dogs learn appropriate manners to help them get adopted, and the kids gain valuable self-confidence, a feeling of achievement, tools for teamwork and gain empathy for the animals and each other.

Source of the above list:


  •  The Cat Program at Saxierriet Prison
  • Saxierriet penitentiary in Switzerland has implemented an innovative pet therapy program called the Cat Program through which inmate volunteers are provided with pet cats. Strict regulations are enforced to ensure the welfare of these therapy animals, and inmates may take their pets with them when they are released.

Having trustworthy, nonjudgmental companions has reduced the loneliness of participating inmates. Taking care of an animal is the only socially acceptable way of showing affection in prison, and the opportunity to do so has made the prisoners more receptive to psychological treatment. A study of participants found that they had higher self-esteem and self-confidence as a result of the program, critical elements for resocialization after release (Nef, 2004, “The Cat Programme, An Animal-Assisted Therapy at Saxierriet Prison for Men: Its Effects and Results in a Correctional Establishment”).

  • The Feral Cat Colony at Pollsmoor Prison
  • Pollsmoor Prison, a South African maximum security facility housing a large number of hardcore criminals, is also home to a feral cat colony whose members have had a transformative effect on the inmates.

Prisoners first invited the starving feral cats into their cells by hanging sheets from their windows for the cats to climb and sharing their food with them. Rita Brock and Mandy Wilson of The Emma Animal Rescue Society (TEARS), who originally came to rescue feral cats in the area that local authorities planned to eradicate, now have the ongoing responsibility of working with the prisoners and wardens to ensure that the cats receive sufficient food and medical care.

  • The Cat Program at Indiana State Prison                                  Cat Behaviourist Diana Korten visited the Indiana State prison to interview inmates and staff about their cat program. Korten notes that it was the cats that initiated the program when they made their way onto the prison grounds and began having kittens there.

Indiana State is a maximum security facility and many of the offenders are in for murder, but the men are fiercely protective of their cats. They construct elaborate cat furniture, make cat toys, and take excellent care of their charges, cat-sitting for one another as needed. The prisoners receive unconditional love from their pets and believe that the cats have changed them in positive ways, reducing their anger and increasing their capacity for self-control.

  • The Pen Pals Program at Pocahontas Correctional Unit     The Chesterfield, VA, Pocahontas Correctional Unit Pen Pals program enables trusted inmates to care for abandoned feral cats. Participants socialize the cats, after which they are adopted out.
  • The Cats of Bang Kwang Prison

Bang Kwang Prison in Thailand, like many other prisons, has become a gathering place for abandoned feral cats. Lonely inmates, many of them in jail for life, are comforted by the 700 feral cats that live on the prison grounds.

A warden at the prison said “with these cats around, inmates with brutal crimes such as murder have reduced much of their aggression and become gentler.”

Source of this list, and to read more at: Prison Cats Change Inmates for the Better: Lives of Prisoners Transformed Through Pet Therapy

Animal programs are popular in correctional facilities, yes the effectiveness of the programs is largely subjective, but as published in the Journal of Family Social Work, pet programs have the “potential to break down barriers of fear and mistrust between staff and inmates. It suggests the programs do reduces stress and behavior infractions.

“The benefits of pets in institutional settings were first observed by accident in 1975 when an inmate at Lima State Hospital in Ohio adopted an injured sparrow, according to the KSU study.”

Prison pet programs existed in at least 20 states as of 2006, there are no complete counts of all the programs in existence.




About maggie.

Maggie Barnes is a nonprofit and for profit business content specialist / social media consultant; and social sciences web writer interested in everything from psychology and sexuality, to technology, race, and economics. She is passionate about good communication and information accessibility.


3 thoughts on “Pet Therapy in Prison, Say What? (or… ‘If You Give an Inmate a Pet’)

  1. Would like to donate some of our personal cats. To. The cat prison program. What do we have to do.p

    Posted by sally | March 4, 2013, 6:49 am
  2. Please note, the official site for the Stafford Creek Corrections Cente dog program, Freedom Tails, is:


    Our primary shelter, and the shelter that approves the adoptions is Norht Beach PAWS in Oceanh Shores, WA.

    Thank you,
    Karen Diehm – Freedom Tails volunteer, newsletter Editor/Photographer

    Posted by Karen Diehm | March 12, 2013, 2:59 am


  1. Pingback: “Hey, I just met you…and this is crazy…but here’s my web link, download me maybe?” « interesting12 - September 7, 2012

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