The Most Human Thing In Prison May Not Be Human At All

A new program at Pendleton Maximum Security Prison in Indiana brings rescued cats into the facility. Incarcerated men at Pendleton are charged with providing care, keeping their space clean, and socializing the cats, many of whom have been abused or abandoned. Of course, the cats aren’t the only ones with trauma in their past and cages in their present: in the video linked above, they really could’ve used “cats” and “prisoners” interchangeably.

“It’s helped me calm down and lot, and grow up,” says Lamar Hall, one of the cat caretakers. “It feels good just to help.”

One of the things I’ve heard a lot from incarcerated people is how degrading it is to be constantly identified with your past mistakes, viewed as an inherently bad person. Being able to spend time with animals and do positive work is a relief from the exhausting barrage of negativity, both because the cats don’t know you’re part of a prisoner caste and because you can feel good about what you’re doing.

Pendleton also has a dog training program, one of several programs that exist across the U.S. I met one trainer/trainee pair at Otisville Correctional Facility, part of Puppies Behind Bars, and I was blown away: Hannah, the trainee, could respond to more than fifty commands in both English and Spanish, conducting helpful tasks like flipping light-switches and retrieving a ringing telephone. Her trainer was so passionate about the program that he had actually requested a move from a minimum security facility to a medium because the program was only available there.

In an environment of distrust, violence, and prejudice, sometimes contact with non-humans can be the most humanizing experience available.

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