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Originally published May 3, 2012 at 5:37 PM | Page modified May 3, 2012 at 10:35 PM

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Cats bringing out the soft side of inmates

Several inmates at a Vancouver-area prison have furry new bunk mates with the goal that the offenders and the cats will teach each other compassion.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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They should set up an account so people could donate a dollar or two for this program... MORE
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YACOLT, Clark County — Princess Natalie glowers from her perch, a small table tucked inside a concrete prison cell. Her thick, black tail twitches and her golden-green eyes narrow as she offers a clearly dissatisfied meow when Joey Contreras picks her up and kisses her head.

Despite the protestations, Contreras and his cellmate, Joey Walter, say that they have the best jobs of any inmates in Washington: They're paid 35 cents an hour to care for Natalie, a longhair 6-year-old cat with a testy disposition.

Since January, staff at Larch Corrections Center, a minimum-custody prison near Vancouver, have assigned two shelter cats to each live with a pair of inmates in the hope that the relationships will result in better behavior — in both the felons and the cats.

"We're feline attendants," jokes Contreras, 28, who is serving time for identity theft, forgery, fraud and possession of stolen property, as he proudly shows off the scratches and bite marks courtesy of Natalie. The cat's terrible temper and fussiness led Contreras to add "Princess" to her name.

"She growls and swipes," said Walter, 37, who is behind bars for assaulting a police officer.

"We don't know what she's in here for," he jokes. "She won't tell us."

For years, corrections agencies across the nation have adopted programs to allow inmates to interact with animals as a way to teach them responsibility and compassion, two things in rare supply in most prison cells. In Washington, such programs have connected inmates with a veritable menagerie of animals — from honeybees to tadpoles, dogs to butterflies, and now, for the first time, cats.

Dan Pacholke, director of prisons for the state Department of Corrections (DOC), says it's been more than 30 years since dogs were assigned a permanent place in the prison system. Since the early 1980s, inmates at the Washington Corrections Center for Women, in Gig Harbor, have trained dogs for owners with special needs.

Since then, dog-training programs have spread to a big portion of the state prisons.

Eleven of the state's 12 prisons have some type of program involving inmate interaction with animals. It will become 12 for 12 later this month when inmates at Airway Heights Corrections Center, near Spokane, will start training dogs, Pacholke said.

Pacholke believes that having inmates work with animals makes "the environment of prisons less tense and less violent." Working with animals "instills empathy, compassion and responsibility" in the offenders, he said.

"They're getting [animals] that are castaways. That irony isn't lost on the inmates. They're encouraged by the success," Pacholke said.

Monique Camacho, a classification counselor at Larch Corrections Center, said inmates interested in participating in the program must have a history of good behavior. They pair each cat with two inmates, and donors provide the necessary supplies — a litter box, scratching post and cat food.

The inmates, designated by DOC as "cat handlers," are paid to leash train, socialize and groom the cats so the animals can ultimately be adopted.

Cuddly Catz, a Vancouver-based nonprofit animal-welfare group that takes in abandoned cats, places the cats in the prison. Their volunteers come out regularly to teach the inmates how to work with the animals, Camacho said.

Cuddly Catz, and a veterinary clinic and a man who makes scratching posts donate everything, from the posts, to the litter boxes, to toys and any necessary medical treatments.

On a recent afternoon, Clementine, a small gray and white cat, spread out on her scratching post, staring at 35-year-old inmate Richard Amaro as he talked about her likes and dislikes. He boasted about her sunny disposition and said he and his cellmate are lucky to be assigned such a mellow cat, compared to their neighbors' cat, the redoubtable Princess Natalie.

"This gives you a softer side; it makes you feel like you have a kid at home. When I've been out during the day I remember I've got my daughter at home waiting for me," said Amaro, who is serving time for theft, harassment and contracting without a license.

Clementine doesn't make a peep when Amaro clips a leash on her and carries her out of his cell. Amaro walks out of his cellblock to an outdoor gated area, next to the prison's razor-wire fence. He opens the gate, sets his cat on the ground, and she scampers to a log and hunkers down.

The DOC cat program is free for the agency, except for the $1,000 they spent on the outside cat-play area.

Watching the men at the outside cat-play area, Corrections Officer Wes Robinson said he's surprised by the positive change he's seen in Contreras since the arrival of Princess Natalie. Robinson said that he used to supervise Contreras at Stafford Creek Corrections Center, in Aberdeen, and recalls he was a problem inmate.

"It just give them something around to take care of. Contreras was a handful," Robinson said. "This takes his mind off things."

Camacho, the counselor at Larch, said that when she and prison Superintendent Eleanor Vernell started brainstorming ideas for new pet programs, she suggested horses. Vernell suggested cats.

"I wanted to do something different," said Vernell, who believed "dogs are too macho."

Vernell believes that working with cats is far more complex because inmates have to work harder to earn the animal's affection.

"It teaches them responsibility. It teaches them patience. It teaches them how to bond," Vernell said.

In the coming months, prison officials hope to expand the program to about a half-dozen cats to pair with each two-man cell, Camacho said.

"This forces them to think outside of themselves. They have to make sure the cat is loved and happy," Camacho added.

Jennifer Sullivan: 206-464-8294 or jensullivan@seattletimes.com. On Twitter @SeattleSullivan.

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