Animals and Inmates: Second Chances

By Rebecca Potance (Follow us on LinkedIn)

Looking for a heart-warming story? How about a way to alleviate two societal problems with one solution? Recently I learned about programs letting incarcerated people care for feral cats that I just couldn’t keep to myself. The logic is simple: animal shelters cannot find enough homes for all of the cats they bring in off the streets and inmates could use some emotional support from a furry friend. Putting feral cats inside prisons and jails is a low-cost way to help both the inmates and the strays.

Picture created by author

Studies have shown there are numerous therapeutic benefits to pet companionship and a high percentage of inmates have chronic mental and physical illnesses. Prisoners have higher rates of hypertension, diabetes, asthma, and arthritis than the general population. Studies also show high rates of depression, personality disorders, post-traumatic stress disorder, severe trauma and abuse among incarcerated individuals. Numerous medical research papers show that caring for animals can decrease stress and develop positive social skills in humans. 

As of 2019, prison-based animal programs are available in all fifty states in more than 330 correctional institutions. Most of these programs involve training dogs, but cat programs are gaining in popularity. Cats don’t need to be specially-trained to improve a person’s wellbeing. All they need to do is provide unconditional love, and inmates can really use a friend that won’t judge them for having committed a crime. A number of correctional institutions have reported that feral cats sometimes find their way into prison property. Many of the inmates feed the cats, often to the disapproval of administrators. Nevertheless, the cats keep trying to break in and the inmates enjoy their company.

In some programs, the Department of Corrections partners with the local animal shelter, allowing orphaned kittens to stay in inmate’s cells while participants care for them. Another innovative program isolates cats from local shelters in an open room in the prison that has scratching posts, climbing structures and nooks the cats can hide in. Many programs also get donations from pet food and supply companies of their products. In all programs, inmates are screened for good behavior, and participation is used as an incentive to stay on the right track

If you are looking for a meaningful way to improve both the criminal justice system and animal welfare, consider advocating for these programs in your area. On a final note, if anyone is skeptical about using cats instead of more outgoing animals like dogs, you can remind them that cats will take care of any rodent infestation problems inside correctional institutions.

More information:

Nora Sullivan, Felines in Carceral Facilities: A Call to Introduce Cat Visitation

Rooms in Prisons, 20 Hastings RACE & POVERTY L.J. 39 (2023)

Gennifer Furst, “Prison-Based Animal Programs: A National Survey,” The Prison Journal 86, no. 4 (December 2006): 407-30

Angela K. Fournier et al., Human-Animal Interaction in a Prison Setting: Impact on Criminal Behavior, Treatment Progress, and Social Skills, 16 BEHAV. & SOC. ISSUES 89, 92 (2007).

Angela K. Fournier, Pen Pals: An Examination of Human-Animal Interaction as an Outlet for Healthy Masculinity in Prison, in MEN AND THEIR DOGS 175, 191 (C. Blazina & L. R. Kogan eds., 2016)

Rebecca Huss, Canines (and Cats) in Correctional Institutions: Legal and Ethical Issues Relating to Companion Animal Programs, 14 NEV. L.J. 25 (2013).

Allison M, Ramaswamy M. Adapting Animal-Assisted Therapy Trials to Prison-Based Animal Programs. Public Health Nurs. 2016 Sep;33(5):472-80. doi: 10.1111/phn.12276. Epub 2016 Jun 14. PMID: 27302852.

Dell C, Chalmers D, Stobbe M, Rohr B, Husband A. Animal-assisted therapy in a Canadian psychiatric prison. Int J Prison Health. 2019 Aug 29;15(3):209-231. doi: 10.1108/IJPH-04-2018-0020. Epub 2019 Mar 1. PMID: 31329041.


Notes Between Us (NBU) is a blog about conversations and topics of interest to the writers. The writers are expressing their personal opinions solely. The essays represent their personal beliefs and not that of their workplaces or any organization they are associated with.