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Originally published Tuesday, April 10, 2012 at 1:38 PM

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Some Yacolt prison inmates given pet cats

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 Columbian

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VANCOUVER, Wash. —

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 petfinder.com when the time comes.

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.

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Information from: The Columbian, http://www.columbian.com

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