Seattle Times Article

Cats bringing out the soft side of inmates

Several inmates at a Vancouver-area prison have furry new bunk mates with the goal that the offenders and the cats will teach each other compassion.

By Jennifer Sullivan

Seattle Times staff reporter

 Larch inmate Joseph Contreras hugs Princess Natalie, a longhair 6-year-old cat, who is known at times to have a testy disposition.

 Larch inmate Joseph Contreras hugs Princess Natalie, a longhair 6-year-old cat, who is known at times to have a testy disposition.

Larch Corrections Center inmate Richard Amaro takes Clementine for a walk outdoors at the minimum-custody prison near Vancouver, Wash. The inmates are paid to leash train, socialize and groom the cats so the animals can ultimately be adopted.


 Larch Corrections Center inmate Richard Amaro takes Clementine for a walk outdoors at the minimum-custody prison near Vancouver, Wash. The inmates are paid to leash train, socialize and groom the cats so the animals can ultimately be adopted.


 YACOLT, Clark County — Princess Natalie glowers from her perch, a small table tucked inside a concrete prison cell. Her thick, black tail twitches and her golden-green eyes narrow as she offers a clearly dissatisfied meow when Joey Contreras picks her up and kisses her head.

Despite the protestations, Contreras and his cellmate, Joey Walter, say that they have the best jobs of any inmates in Washington: They’re paid 35 cents an hour to care for Natalie, a longhair 6-year-old cat with a testy disposition.

Since January, staff at Larch Corrections Center, a minimum-custody prison near Vancouver, have assigned two shelter cats to each live with a pair of inmates in the hope that the relationships will result in better behavior — in both the felons and the cats.

“We’re feline attendants,” jokes Contreras, 28, who is serving time for identity theft, forgery, fraud and possession of stolen property, as he proudly shows off the scratches and bite marks courtesy of Natalie. The cat’s terrible temper and fussiness led Contreras to add “Princess” to her name.

“She growls and swipes,” said Walter, 37, who is behind bars for assaulting a police officer.

“We don’t know what she’s in here for,” he jokes. “She won’t tell us.”

For years, corrections agencies across the nation have adopted programs to allow inmates to interact with animals as a way to teach them responsibility and compassion, two things in rare supply in most prison cells. In Washington, such programs have connected inmates with a veritable menagerie of animals — from honeybees to tadpoles, dogs to butterflies, and now, for the first time, cats.

Dan Pacholke, director of prisons for the state Department of Corrections (DOC), says it’s been more than 30 years since dogs were assigned a permanent place in the prison system. Since the early 1980s, inmates at the Washington Corrections Center for Women, in Gig Harbor, have trained dogs for owners with special needs.

Since then, dog-training programs have spread to a big portion of the state prisons.

Eleven of the state’s 12 prisons have some type of program involving inmate interaction with animals. It will become 12 for 12 later this month when inmates at Airway Heights Corrections Center, near Spokane, will start training dogs, Pacholke said.

Pacholke believes that having inmates work with animals makes “the environment of prisons less tense and less violent.” Working with animals “instills empathy, compassion and responsibility” in the offenders, he said.

“They’re getting [animals] that are castaways. That irony isn’t lost on the inmates. They’re encouraged by the success,” Pacholke said.

Monique Camacho, a classification counselor at Larch Corrections Center, said inmates interested in participating in the program must have a history of good behavior. They pair each cat with two inmates, and donors provide the necessary supplies — a litter box, scratching post and cat food.

The inmates, designated by DOC as “cat handlers,” are paid to leash train, socialize and groom the cats so the animals can ultimately be adopted.

Cuddly Catz, a Vancouver-based nonprofit animal-welfare group that takes in abandoned cats, places the cats in the prison. Their volunteers come out regularly to teach the inmates how to work with the animals, Camacho said.

Cuddly Catz, and a veterinary clinic and a man who makes scratching posts donate everything, from the posts, to the litter boxes, to toys and any necessary medical treatments.

On a recent afternoon, Clementine, a small gray and white cat, spread out on her scratching post, staring at 35-year-old inmate Richard Amaro as he talked about her likes and dislikes. He boasted about her sunny disposition and said he and his cellmate are lucky to be assigned such a mellow cat, compared to their neighbors’ cat, the redoubtable Princess Natalie.

“This gives you a softer side; it makes you feel like you have a kid at home. When I’ve been out during the day I remember I’ve got my daughter at home waiting for me,” said Amaro, who is serving time for theft, harassment and contracting without a license.

Clementine doesn’t make a peep when Amaro clips a leash on her and carries her out of his cell. Amaro walks out of his cellblock to an outdoor gated area, next to the prison’s razor-wire fence. He opens the gate, sets his cat on the ground, and she scampers to a log and hunkers down.

The DOC cat program is free for the agency, except for the $1,000 they spent on the outside cat-play area.

Watching the men at the outside cat-play area, Corrections Officer Wes Robinson said he’s surprised by the positive change he’s seen in Contreras since the arrival of Princess Natalie. Robinson said that he used to supervise Contreras at Stafford Creek Corrections Center, in Aberdeen, and recalls he was a problem inmate.

“It just give them something around to take care of. Contreras was a handful,” Robinson said. “This takes his mind off things.”

Camacho, the counselor at Larch, said that when she and prison Superintendent Eleanor Vernell started brainstorming ideas for new pet programs, she suggested horses. Vernell suggested cats.

“I wanted to do something different,” said Vernell, who believed “dogs are too macho.”

Vernell believes that working with cats is far more complex because inmates have to work harder to earn the animal’s affection.

“It teaches them responsibility. It teaches them patience. It teaches them how to bond,” Vernell said.

In the coming months, prison officials hope to expand the program to about a half-dozen cats to pair with each two-man cell, Camacho said.

“This forces them to think outside of themselves. They have to make sure the cat is loved and happy,” Camacho added.

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.

AP Post

Wash. prison inmates get shelter cats .

by Nigel Duara/Associated Press Posted on May 3, 2012 at 8:32 AM

YACOLT, Wash. (AP) — When Princess Natalie was still a kitten, before she was prison royalty, she was left in a cage with another cat for months. They were fed, given water and not much else. Natalie became afraid of people and other cats. When she was adopted, she hissed at her owners, made a mess in their home and bit them at every opportunity. They gave up and handed her over to a shelter. Natalie was scheduled to be put down. But then a program at a minimum-security prison in Washington state presented another option: Hand her over to a pair of inmates. The six-year-old, long-haired black cat would live in their cell, get outside time daily and learn manners. For Joey Contreras, 28, Natalie’s arrival in March was his ticket out of a 40-man dorm and into a two-person cell with a door. Contreras and his cellmate, after passing the screening process, are two of the four inmates in the “Cuddly Catz” program at Larch Correctional Facility in Yacolt. “Nobody was wanting to adopt her,” Contreras said. “We got her and it’s been awesome ever since.” It wasn’t awesome at the outset. She came as advertised, Contreras said — moody, dysfunctional and prone to violence. But the changes in his newest cellmate are evident. She can now be petted, brushed and even held for a few minutes. She still growls but rarely hisses. She has a scratching post and perch that takes up a healthy chunk of the 12 foot-by-10 foot cell. Contreras and his cellmate care for her in shifts. The program’s other cat, a half-Persian mix named Clementine, is in the care of Richard Amaro, who said the experience has been about more than escaping dorm life. “You get close to them,” Amaro said. The prison hopes to add four more cats. Inmates accepted in the program have to exhibit good behavior — infractions can mean being sent back to the general population. Prison counselor Monique Camacho said the experience helps reinforce the concept of teamwork for inmates who are used to looking out for only themselves. “In prison, they tend to think about No. 1,” Camacho said. “Now they have to look out, care for and have responsibility for something else.”

Petside Article

Cuddly Catz: An Innovative Cat Foster Prison Program

Published April 24, 2012

Flickr User Katie@!

Cuddly Catz is an innovative foster cat program dedicated to rehabilitating cats and prison inmates.

Shelter cats who otherwise might have been euthanized are getting a new lease on life, while at the same time contributing to the lives of prison inmates. 

Cuddly Catz prison foster home program is a win-win situation for everyone involved. Launched two weeks ago at the minimum security prison at Larch Corrections Center, located near Yacolt, Washington, this innovative kitty foster-home program has already started making positive changes in the lives of inmates involved in the program.

Inmates participating in the Cuddly Catz program become foster parents for the cats living with them around the clock in a 12 x 10-foot cell resembling a dormitory room. Besides performing all necessary cat duties, the inmate’s patient, gentle interaction with their kitties (whose behavioral problems may have led to their shelter surrender) is helping to achieve a major program goal; rehabilitating the cats.

And the program is working. According to a recent news item in the Asbury Press, in just the short time that the Cuddly Catz prison program has been in place, the staff has already noticed a significant difference in program participant’s interactions with both fellow inmates and prison personnel. Cuddly Catz truly is an astounding win-win for both the cats and their caretakers.

But feline rehabilitation is not the program’s only goal. The program is also looking to help inmates, who share a special connection with the cats they are paired with. The inmates inherently benefit from feeling a sense of purpose in helping to rehabilitate the forgotten felines.

One inmate, 28-year-old Joey Contreras said, “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.” His cellmate, 37-year-old Joseph Walter added, “Prison time can make inmates mean”.

The cat’s unconditional love helps to ignite inmate’s more compassionate and gentler side.

An extensive screening process is required for inmates to participate in the program. Since safety for the animals is the program’s top priority, inmate candidates must not have committed a violent crime against animals or humans, be free of any prison infractions for at least six months and will be remaining in prison for at least a year after receiving a cat. 

An outdoor prison enclosure was built to give inmates and cats fresh air and room in which to play, at a cost of nearly $2,028. It was paid for by the state Department of Corrections. No additional costs to the department are necessary, since community volunteers provide food, litter and other supplies.

Watch the fascinating MSNBC video about cats living in prisons, uploaded to YouTube by BamBookUK.




Halo Pets Article

Cats and Inmates Help Rehabilitate
Each Other

By Caroline Golon


Clementine – Photo: Steven Lane, The Columbian/APclick image to enlarge


It may be surprising to some that a cat named Princess Natalie would be happy living in a prison cell, but this princess is thriving under the care of inmates at the Larch Corrections Center near Yacolt, Washington.

 According to the Columbian, which originally shared the story, Natalie is part of Cuddly Catz, a new foster cat program at the minimum-security center that helps prepare cats for adoption. Natalie lives with two inmates – Joey Contreras and Joseph Walter – who dote on her and have already helped make a big difference in her behavior.

 Before joining the program, Natalie struggled in foster care. Her aggressive behavior included spraying, biting and scratching to the point that Marsha Thomas-Carney, her foster mom, was at her wit’s end.

 Fortunately, Thomas-Carney was involved in Cuddly Catz and thought Natalie would be an ideal candidate for the program. She was right.


Princess-Natalie – Photo:Steven Lane, The Columbian/APclick image to enlarge

Thomas-Carney told the Olympian that since Natalie has been living with Conteras and Walter, “You can see the behavioral changes in just two weeks.”

Her caretakers report that her spraying has completely stopped, likely due to the much needed attention they give her.

To ensure the safety of the cats, inmates in the program must meet a strict set of criteria and pass an extensive screening process.

While the program is still in its infancy, administrators see potential for both the inmates and the cats.

Participating inmates keep a journal of their cat’s progress and program administrators will rely on the inmates to help determine when the cats are ready for adoption.

 Helping the cats prepare for the “outside world” also helps the inmates.

 “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 told the Olympian. “It’s a little different when you have an animal depending on you to survive. Animals bring out the best in people.”

Richard Amaro, who cares for Clementine, another cat in the program, agrees. “It makes your soft side come out.”

Columbian News Article

Kitties in the clink

Larch Corrections Center’s foster cat program proving mutually beneficial for inmates, felines

Foster cat Clementine, whois part of Larch Corrections Center’s Cuddly Catz program, has brought out the “softer side” of inmates William Lozano, left, and Richard Amaro, Amaro said.

Photo by Steven Lane

Foster cat Clementine, whois part of Larch Corrections Center’s Cuddly Catz program, has brought out the “softer side” of inmates William Lozano, left, and Richard Amaro, Amaro said.

By Paris Achen

As of Tuesday, April 10, 2012


By Steven Lane

Foster cat Clementine is doing time to improve her social skills at the Larch Corrections Center as part of the Cuddly Catz program. Program volunteers said her shyness has made her difficult to place with a family with children or other pets.


By Steven Lane

Inmates William Lozano, left, and Richard Amaro, said their foster cat, Clementine provides a calming home-like environment at Larch Corrections Center.


By Steven Lane

Inmates Richard Amaro, left, and William Lozano, get a lesson on cat claw trimming from Cuddly Catz volunteer Kelly Clarke at the Larch Corrections Center.


By Steven Lane

Counselor Monique Camacho helped organize the Larch Corrections Center’s Cuddly Catz program.


By Steven Lane

Joey Contreras, with foster cat Princess Natalie, relaxes on Contreras’ cot at Larch Corrections Center. Princess Natalie is part of the Cuddly Catz program at the Yacolt-area facility.

Larch Corrections inmate Joey Contreras and Princess Natalie, a long-haired black feline, have at least two commonalities: both know what it’s like to live in captivity, and both needed unconditional love.

The convict and the cat may have filled that need for each other. Through a new cat foster program at the minimum-security Larch Corrections Center near Yacolt, Natalie came to live with Contreras, 28, and inmate Joseph Walter, 37, about two weeks ago in their 12-by-10-foot cell, which resembles a dormitory room.

“He’s really a cat hog,” Walter joked, as he observed Contreras cuddling with Princess Natalie on his cot. “He lets me touch her every now and then.”

In the two weeks since its launch, the Cuddly Catz program already has made a difference in the lives of the cats and the inmates, said Larch employees and inmates.

Princess Natalie would likely have been euthanized without the program, said Cuddly Catz volunteer Marsha Thomas-Carney.

Behavioral changes

Thomas-Carney, who had been caring for the rescue cat in hope of adopting her, said Princess Natalie’s spraying, scratching and biting habits, apparently intended to obtain more attention in a home filled with other foster cats, had driven Thomas-Carney to consider giving her to the pound. Given Princess Natalie’s behavioral problems, her chances of survival at the pound were grim, Thomas-Carney said.

Instead, Princess Natalie joined the inmates at Larch.

“You can see the behavioral changes in just two weeks,” Thomas-Carney said. Princess Natalie hasn’t sprayed since her arrival at the prison, presumably because she receives all the attention she needs, Walter said.

“Literally, they rescued her from death,” Thomas-Carney said.

After hearing that, Contreras smiles like a proud father.

A purr of compassion

The cats also foster change in the inmates, who feel a sense of purpose in rehabilitating the felines.

“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.

“It makes your soft side come out,” added inmate Richard Amaro, 35, who cares for another cat in the program.

Three-year-old Clementine lives with Amaro and cellmate William Lozano, 24. The two cats are the only ones in the program, but Larch officials hope to eventually expand the program to include more cats.

Lozano has become more social since Clementine arrived, said Larch counselor Monique Camacho.

“He’s had 100 percent more interaction with staff than he did before,” Camacho said. “Lozano was so quiet, he wouldn’t even look at the staff, let alone talk to them. Now, he’s forced to interact with us and other inmates.”

Lozano said that’s true, because Clementine makes him feel more at home.

A cat’s persistence

Superintendent Eleanor Vernell decided to start a cat program at the prison after having a surprisingly pleasant experience with her son’s cat.

“I am not a cat lover,” Vernell said. “I would go to my son’s house, and the cat would run under me. Even though I didn’t like cats, I grew to like that cat.”

Gwen Sidlo, a spokesperson at Larch, recalled a conversation with Vernell when the superintendent was considering whether to start the program.

“She said, ‘That cat (Vernell’s son’s cat) was really persistent,’” Sidlo recounted. “‘If that cat could win me over, that cat could win anybody over,’” including hard-shelled inmates.

Vernell asked Camacho to create the program and find a cat rescue organization to provide the cats. Cuddly Catz was formed out of Furry Friends cat rescue organization of Vancouver to do just that.

Keeping the cats safe

Participating in the program involves an extensive screening process, Camacho said. The main priority is to keep the animals safe, Vernell said. Hence, 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 when the time comes.

Program effectiveness

Animal programs are popular in correctional facilities, but the effectiveness of the programs is largely anecdotal, according to a 2006 study by Kansas State University’s Department of Sociology, Anthropology and Social Work.

The study, published in the Journal of Family Social Work, found that pet programs have the “potential to break down barriers of fear and mistrust between staff and inmates.”

Anecdotal evidence suggests the program also reduces stress and behavior infractions within prison walls and recidivism after release.

Vernell said she’s noticed the cats have a soothing effect on inmates.

However, there has been no study of data to confirm those effects, the KSU study cautioned.

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.

Staff members noticed an immediate change in inmate behavior in the ward. After a year, they reported a reduction in need for medications, violence and suicides compared with wards without a pet, the study stated.

Prison pet programs existed in at least 20 states as of 2006, though no one has done a comprehensive count of the programs’ prevalence, the study found.

Paris Achen: 360-735-4551;;;