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Originally published Thursday, May 3, 2012 at 7:35 AM

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Bunking with cats, inmates learn value of teamwork

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.

Associated Press

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YACOLT, Wash. —

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."

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