Preview of Coming Attractions

Over the next several months, I will be traveling across the country in search of cat stories, visiting innovative cat rescues and shelters, interviewing eccentric cat lovers, leading vets and behaviorists and so much more. To view my travel schedule and learn more about my Cat Behaviorist business, please visit http://www.thecatbehaviorist.com/ . If I will be in your area and you feel you have some interesting cat stories to share, please don't hesistate to contact me via my website.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

Indiana State Prison, Michigan City, Indiana: A Better Place for Everyone

Cats started the Indiana State Prison cat program. One by one, over the years, they arrived, entering the prison through the bars of the North Gate, depositing litters of kittens into the eager arms and hearts of the inmates there.

Indiana State Prison is a men’s maximum security prison. Before coming here, I had mentioned my impending visit in various conversations. Concerned cat lovers had fretted over the fate of cats confined with such a rough crowd. 70% of the offenders incarcerated at Indiana State Prison are there for murder.

However, during my interviews, I found that whatever the complexities of their relationships with other people, most of the offenders in the cat program have always been animal lovers. And their devotion to their cats goes beyond providing these felines with security. These men adore their cats. Again and again, they affirmed that the cats had changed their lives, calming their anger, offering them love and teaching them about the joys and sacrifices of responsibility.

“When I arrived here, I had nothing to lose.” Explains ‘Bear’. “When you have nothing to lose—you can get yourself into a lot of trouble. When I got my first cat, it changed me. There is something about holding a cat that makes your anger melt away. And if someone does something that upsets me—I have to remember my cat. I can’t keep my cat if I get into trouble.” He smiles wryly, reaching for little Ziggy. Bear’s last cat died recently from a pulmonary disorder. Bear was devastated, as were the other men on his floor. Because the cat died of natural causes, he was able to get a new kitten. Ziggy was sourced through a local animal shelter that works with the prison.

He and his cellmate, Tom (who also has a cat, Booger) had to ‘kitten-proof’ their cell. They took down the cat tree that they had constructed for Booger and the previous cat, concerned that the very energetic and inquisitive kitten might injure himself on it. They also built a makeshift ‘cage’ for Ziggy to keep him safe when Tom and Bear have to be away from the cell.

According to the rules, all the cats are supposed to be leased at all times, but the guards and administration are very lax about these regulations, observing closely and using their discretion in individual cases, always with an eye toward the safety of the cat.

The gorgeous, fluffly Milo tends to stay in Mark Booher’s cell. Though the cat’s outgoing, sociable personality draws many visitors to his cell. The showers are immediately adjacent to Mr. Booher’s cell and Milo will pad over to stay close to his person. “A while back, I had a court date so I was gone for 10 days. The last thing I did before leaving was to shower. Milo followed along. When I got back, everyone told me that whenever he heard the showers turned on, Milo would hop over to see if it was me. It was nice to know that he was missing me.” Mr. Booher continues, “I was really lucky to get a cat like Milo. He has softened me. In a place like this, you have to keep your front up all the time, but not with Milo.”

Mark’s mother has always been a cat lover. Being able to swap cat anecdotes helps him stay close to her. “If it wasn’t for Milo, there wouldn’t be much to talk about.” He gestures out at the prison. “The cat program is the best thing happening here. It gives my life a purpose.”

James Stone got his first cat ‘Jinx’ years ago, well before the prison formalized the cat program. An inmate in his building had found a cat in the yard and brought it to his cell. “James, something is wrong with this cat.” The inmate called on him because James had a reputation for caring about animals.- Examining the cat, James assured him that the cat was fine—just in labor. Both men attended the birth. As the kittens matured, the other man sold these highly prized companions to other offenders for hundreds of dollars. But the runt of the litter was twitchy, with a crooked tail, poor balance and patches of fur missing. “He was real pathetic and nobody wanted that kitten. The guy was asking $300 cash, then a week later he dropped the price to $200, then $100—then $50 in kit. Finally, he just wanted to get rid of it. I was afraid he might kill it, so I took it.” Like the tale of the Ugly Duckling, ‘Jinx’ grew to be the most handsome and popular cat of the litter. “Even Major Cabanaw loved him. I’d come back to my cell and the guys would tell me,’The Major was here, hanging out in your cell with Jinx.’”

Indeed, Major Cabanaw has a photo of James Stone and Jinx on the bulletin board in his office. “I am 100% in favor of the cat program.” He proclaims proudly. “I don’t know of any other corrections facility that has a program like this—but I would recommend it for all prisons. The bottom line—it gives the offenders a reason to behave. It changes them. I’ve got guys in here who caused all kinds of problems—then they got a cat and thats it—they settle down and haven't caused any trouble since.”

A Major is the highest ranking corrections officer in the system. Indiana State Prison is only supposed to have one major overseeing the internal workings of the prison. My guide for the day, Vince Morton, is also a Major, but he was promoted to an administrative position overseeing prisoner grievances and other special programs (like the cat program.)

I asked if Major Cabanaw had concerns for the safety of the cats. “Of course, we always want to ensure the safety of the cats, and the staff is great about keeping an eye out for them. But mostly, it’s the offenders keeping them safe. I have never once seen an offender kill his own cat. We screen them to be sure they have no history of animal abuse. But I’ll tell you this, there was a guy killed in here because he had spit soda pop onto someone else’s cat.”


Kris St. Martin, a corrections officer, tells me, “There was a guy here whose cat was killed a couple of years ago. The guys on the floor put out a contract on that cat killer. No one was ever able to figure out who had done it, but if they had, well, as I said, there was a contract on him…Mostly these guys are really protective of the cats and they all benefit from their presence. A cat will visit with the offenders in their neighboring cells, and it means a lot to all of them. Occasionally, we get someone who has issues with casts, so we move them out to another building.”

When I visited, James Stone was providing a bit of ‘kitty day-care’ for another offender's cat, while he looked after his own cat. “Yeah, I take care of this guy’s cat while he’s at work.” James smiles proudly. This seems to be a fairly common practice among the cat program participants.

Jinx passed away from natural causes. The local shelter helped James find a cat that look a lot like Jinx. “ ‘Jinxster’ has the white paws, which Jinx didn’t have, and his personality is different, but he is still a great cat.”

Jinxster walked right up to me and offered a friendly overture as James continued to speak. “I have a temper. One time some things happened and I was feeling pretty serious about doing something. I was ready to do something. But Raol put Jinxster in my arms, and I just held him until I didn’t need to do something anymore.”

Slightly sheepish, he claims, “During my first 15 years here, I was trouble. I was out there in the yard, just making trouble.” Vince Morton and Kris St. Martin nod their heads knowingly, they both knew him before his first cat. “But Jinx changed all that. I’m a different person now.”

He shows me the marvelous cat house he built for his cats from scrap lumber and other odds and ends. I am amazed at how intuitively these men have responded to their cats needs. All of them have responded to the cats desire for height by constructing shelves for the cats.

“They certainly are innovative and resourceful.” Vince Morton affirms. Cat toys made from found pigeon feathers, boxes, string, scraps of carpet and fabric retrieved from dumpsters. A faux lambs wool paint roller makes a terrific cat toy.

The Assistant Superindent of the prison tells me, “I know there are people out there who think the offenders shouldn’t have cats. Some people don’t want them to have TV or anything to do. But I would support this cat program at any prison. Those cats humanize the men. The cats give them unconditional love, for many of those guys, that may be the only love they have ever experienced in their lives. And the bottom line for me, is that my staff are safer because of it. Every day that none of my staff gets hurt—that’s a good day. Watching over these guys is a dangerous job. And anything that makes that job safer is good with me.”

The administration and the staff that I spoke with emphatically supported the program. “I’ve been here for over 25 years, and I have seen a lot of offenders transformed by the cats.” Vince Morton is the man who kindly organized my visit and took a morning away from his vacation time to show me around. “This is an important program, I’m glad for an opportunity to tell people about it.”

My last interview was with Michael Overstreet, on death row. The program was only recently opened to Death Row inmates. Mr. Overstreet applied to the program and six weeks later received a darling black kitten, whom his seventeen year old daughter named ‘Athena’.

The cat program is virtually cost free to the prison (and tax-payers!) The program participants are responsible for all the expenses relating to the cat, including food, litter and veterinary bills. They can earn that money through work programs or through financial support from their families. “My grandmother is a real cat person.” Mr. Overstreet explains, “I asked her if she would sponsor my cat and she agreed…This cat has brought me so much happiness and order to my days. I used to sleep all day and be up all night. But now I have responsibilities.” Athena runs around the cell investigating everything, pressing her head through the bars to inquire about me. I was able to enter all of the other prisoner’s cells, but the rules are different on Death Row. No one enters the prisoner’s cells unless the offender is handcuffed, for one thing.

With each interview, I shook hands with the offenders. Vince Morton had advised me, “Most of the staff don’t know the specifics of the crimes these guys have committed. I find that its better not to know. It helps you be fair with them, if you aren’t thinking about what they did—and you absolutely don’t want to bring it up.”

All of our conversations focused on the cats, the logistics of prison litterbox maintenance, the importance of the cat relationship, anecdotes and one cat’s preference for ice water (all the inmates on Milo’s floor keep his water bowl nicely chilled by constantly refreshing his ice—since he has expressed a preference for cold water.)

I hadn’t known what to expect, never having been to a prison before. My entire idea of this world was based on The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile and Prison Break. I had anticipated mind-games and all sorts of possible unpleasantness. Instead, I found these men to be humble, respectful and profoundly sincere in their humanity and love for their cats.

In spite of the setting and the non-specific knowledge that their presence here was caused by unthinkable actions, I left the prison surprisingly uplifted, being so impressed by the compassion of the staff and the transformational impact of the cats.

When I arrived at my hotel two hours away in Lafayette, Indiana and had unpacked, I sat at my computer to download the photographs I had taken of the prison cats. Curiousity overcame me and I did a google search for ‘Michael Overstreet’.

As soon as I read it, I knew I would not look into the pasts of my other acquaintances.

Mr. Overstreet’s crime is the stuff of every woman’s worst nightmare.

On a deeply spiritual level, I believe in compassion for all beings. I believe in the right to rehabilitation. I believe that the entire universe benefits every time a heart is opened to true love. I believe these convictions so deeply that I believe that no matter how heinous the crime, that as long as the animal is safe, this cat program is good and right, not just as a reward for present good behavior, but because learning to love selflessly—even when the soul learning that love is about to be extinguished—the ability to experience that kind of love lightens the world. It makes the world a better place for everyone.

No studies have been done examining the impact of prison animal programs on recidivism. But Superintendent Buss assured me that the data for prisoner conduct within the facility is conclusive, the cats make the prison a better environment. The whole program is incredibly inspiring regarding the potential for animals to heal humans.

But Vince Morton was right, there are some things that it is better not to know.

Tonight I sit with great discomfort about Michael Overstreet, who loves his little cat Athena, and his four children and the grandmother that is sponsoring his kitten. Michael Overstreet whose hand I shook and with whom I spoke about the vagaries of love.

21 comments:

xcstar7 said...

I just watched an episode of RAW on MSNBC and was immediately touched by this cat program that Indiana State Prison offers its inmates. Immediately I wanted to be involved, so I did an internet search and found this blog. What an amazing thing to be happening in such an awful place. I would like to know if there is any way that I can help, even if it is as simple as sending food or litter to help care for a resident cat. As a pet lover myself (I have a dog and a cat) I feel like this would be an opportunity too valuable to pass up. Please let me know if I am in any position to help, and thank you for putting your story out there for people to read!

catlover said...

Kudos to whoever started this apparently successful pet program. Keep up the good work!

jay said...

I too saw the episode on tv just last night and was genuinly moved by it. I know how much joy my cat brings me, but I can only imagine what it would do to someone locked up. You would think it's a life changing, eye opening experience. With all the money the government is giving to banks, you would like to think there would be some to help sponsered programs like this one. I've seen many prision shows that are about the impact of animals on inmates. Cell Dogs being the only one ever made into a series, but they all make one clear point. Prisioners who take care of animals are better people because of it. Isn't that the idea behind prision in the first place? If they had something to care about, and depended on them, it's likely they will behave better and straighten out their problems while behind bars! This should be available to more prisioners and prisions.
I too felt a strong need to help. Not just for the inmates, but for the cats as well. Think of how many less cats would be put down at overcrowded shelters if more prisions had this program. If anyone knows, I would like to know where to go for information on sending money or supplies to these inmates. I don't have a lot of money, but I'm sure $25 to an inmate would be very helpful. If anyone knows any info regarding where to send money to this prision, or any other that has a similar program, please let me know at brokenbad53@yahoo.com
thank you for posting this story on your blog! We need people to see inspirational stories like this more often!

Darren said...

Thank you so much for this article. Not only is it superbly written; it is uplifting, warm, and hopeful. I had never even imagined such a program but can attest to the incredible ability of my cats to calm and pacify me. They are wonderful animals which demand both one's respect and care. As a whole, I believe this is a great thing for prisoners to experience this. I really hope that these programs are expanded as much as possible.

33bowls said...

Heartening. Connections are what "make" us well, good to know there are some facilities that actually embody correctional as more than a namesake.

astarte said...

I am friends with one of the inmates there that has a cat. I can assure you he cares immensely for her and has made sacrifices in order to keep her and make sure she has everything she needs and wants. If anyone is interested in donating you can write to the prison. Indiana State Prison, 1 Park Row, Michigan City, IN 46360. You can't donate directly to an inmate because they have set funds and you must be on their visitors list in order to do it but I'm sure if you contact the prison to set something up they would appreciate it. The staff as well as the inmates love having the cats around. If anyone wants to contact me you can email me bbzheather@yahoo.com

Clark said...

That place looks really nice for being a prison, it seems government has made a good job with prison facilities and that cat looks like the guards backup. I cannot imagine if they need generic viagra because I don't want to think about what they do to fulfill their needs you know.

Ayd Aayd said...

http://www.blackmarketarts.com/#!/reflections/the-measure-of-men

That blog is written by a man who goes by the name of Youngluck. He is currently serving two years in the FCI in Sheridan, Oregon.

TL;DR/Spoiler: The inmates started a cat program of their own- with their own food scraps.

Elizabeth said...

There's a somewhat similar program at a prison near Fort Knox. It's minimal security, and they train dogs rescued from shelters to be service dogs. (I know training service dogs has been done at other prisons, too, but I speak of the one I know first-hand.) My mother got her service dog, Max, from the program at Fort Knox. Max chose my mother more than mom chose him, even pushing away another dog to get my mom's attention. They went everywhere together for many years, until my mother had a stroke and became wheelchair-bound and didn't go out as much. Max was a happy house pet until his death in 2008, which was unfortunately just a month before my mom's mother passed away, too. The Fort Knox program really enhanced my mom's life, even after she had her stroke; Max would pick up the remote or dishes that mom dropped. It's heartbreaking, though, to hear her call for him when she drops the remote, two years after his passing.

Kearby Kaiser said...

I have been doing research on this as I am running a marathon and want to raise money for a cause I can get my stupid friends behind. I really can use your article to get people excited- my only question is if they need money for anything?

AnnTalksTruth said...

Hello, I am a devoted cat lover who has five beautiful kittens that need adoption. They are almost weaned. They are healthy, strong and fat! They are sweet. They deserve a good place and a good person. I can pay for the costs to sent them to the prison and have them spayed/neutered and given their shots. I just need some help in doing this. I think it's a wonderful thing and I'm willing to make it happen. Please e-mail me. Thank you.

Jeanine Ray said...

I too was very moved by this story. It occurs to me that the first thing to be done if other prisons are to take up this program is that a manual of how to do it needs to be written. How to start up the program, how to maintain it, requirements on receiving a cat, etc. Indiana State Prison would have the list of best practices. It is not enough to just go to other prisons and say "hey, they did it, you should too!" and leave all the work to them to figure out how to get it done. So first thing first... who is going to write the guide book?

Unknown said...

This is one of the most wonderful stories I have read in a really long time! Thank you for writing it - this is the sort of positive program that should be instituted in everywhere.

Plato said...

What a wonderful and humanising idea. It's the feline version of Bird Man of Alcatraz.

Dave Natan said...

This is awesome! I'm sure it helps with the rehabilitation process.

plot said...

What a wonderful story! I hope their are more prison populations open to this.

One note, I'm not sure this program needs money from us or anyone else. It runs itself. Ideally, it should start through prisoner initiative rather than an outside program.

Personally, I like that the inmates have to work to provide for their cats and go through a screening process (and monitor the care of all cats themselves.)

If a prisoner wants a cat, it's better he should work it out on his own than be handed a cat and supplies. The "working" aspect of this gives this isolated environment goals, that they need to achieve on their own.

Rebecca said...

Thank you for this blog! My fiance is currently incarcerated in IL, and as an animal lover his 4 year sentence was made more bearable on days when he was able to see the cat who sometimes made an appearance near the dining hall, or when he saw wild rabbits running across the grass on his way between buildings. I really wish these sorts of programs were available in ALL prisons. There is no relationship you can have that will be more healing than one with an animal, whether it's a cat, dog, bird, or rat! I really think inmates who are able to participate in these sorts of programs are MUCH more likely to be successful and contributing members of their communities upon release!

maria said...

I think it's a great program and the cats look well taken care of and loved.

Queenie said...

Hi Diane, I'm attempting to model a program after this one for petty female offenders here in Philadelphia. Do you know a contact person I might reach in Indiana?

Queenie said...

Hi Diane,

Thank you for this informative piece. I am aiming to mimic this program with petty female offenders here in Philadelphia. Do you know a contact person for this program in Indiana?

Sandra said...

Queenie I live in the Philadelphia area and would like to help you start that program. Email me sandralynn5188@gmail.com