All images courtesy of the Animal Protection League / FORWARD
All images courtesy of the Animal Protection League / FORWARD

Cats Find Homes in Prisons—and Reform Inmates

All images courtesy of the Animal Protection League / FORWARD
All images courtesy of the Animal Protection League / FORWARD

Bangkwang Prison, just north of Bangkok, dates back to the 1930s. But the generations of feral cats who live there, now numbering about 700, have called it home for longer than that—and apparently don't intend to leave. For decades, the prison's wardens tried to ship them off site, but the cats kept returning. Eventually prison officials took the opposite tack—and invited the cats in to be adopted by prisoners, many of whom are serving lifetime sentences and see few visitors. Informal studies have shown that not only do the cats reduce the rat population, they also reduce anger and aggression among the inmates, and increase gentle behavior. 

It's unclear when the cat adoption program first began at Bangkwang, but it's since appeared in prisons worldwide as a form of therapy. In the U.S. as of 2012, 39 states had prison animal programs, which mostly use dogs but sometimes include cats. 

Take, for instance, the cat adoption program at the maximum-security Indiana State Prison in Michigan City, Ind., which has been in operation for more than 20 years. No one knows for sure how the original cats got to the prison, which houses some 2300 male inmates. Today the facility administers the program in partnership with the animal shelter Fried’s.

Seventy-five cats live at the prison. Each furry face has its own ID badge, just like the prisoners, although their names are slightly cuter: Radar, Ziggy, Buffy, Socks, Lil Bit, Precious. There’s an application and approval process for each inmate who wants a cat. Once adopted, the cats live in the inmates' cells for the duration of the prisoner’s stay. Inmates buy the animals treats and toys, build cat furniture for them, and even pet-sit for one another if necessary. The critters are kept on leashes and go everywhere with their owners. (At other prisons, the cats are free to roam around, moving from cell to the prison yard to a cat common room.)

The program is so popular that it now has a waiting list with very strict requirements—and equally strict punishment for breaking the rules.

“To have a cat, the offender must have a job,” Pam James, the public information officer at Indiana State Prison, tells mental_floss. “He purchases all the food and litter, and all that comes through his offender trust account. If they get out on parole, the cat would go with them. But if they have a conduct report for behavior, then they would have to relinquish the cat by sending it home, or it could be put up for adoption. Then there’s not usually any way for them to get the cat back.”

With such high stakes, prisoners with cats are usually on their best behavior. Moreover, there’s less violence and stress among inmates and guards in the cellblocks with cats, and wherever the inmates take the cats on prison grounds.

Prisoners tend to develop a deep bond with their cats. In maximum-security HMP Shotts prison in Scotland, for example, one prisoner said his cat was the first thing he’d shown affection for in seven years.

“The offenders treat the pets like their children,” James says. “It’s soothing. It’s something that just loves them back. The prisoners have something in their life that gives them unconditional love.”

In addition to boosting better behavior, prisoners who have adopted cats undergo somewhat of a psychological reawakening. According to Dr. Stuart Bassman, a psychologist who specializes in helping prisoners nationwide reassimilate into normal life, many convicts tortured and abused animals while growing up. The relationship goes the other way too: In Chicago alone, a three-year study showed that 65 percent of people arrested for animal crimes also committed violent acts against other people. The link is so strong that in 2014, the National District Attorneys Association, in association with the ASPCA, published a guide for criminal justice professionals about the connection. 

Prison cats provide an opportunity for those offenders to symbolically make amends and redeem themselves through constant care of the animal. Bassman also believes that the traditional idea of cats having nine lives helps prisoners on both a mental and emotional level.

“The cat can represent a new beginning,” he says. “The person that’s incarcerated, when they think that they might have another life like the cat, that they might be able to 'recycle' themselves, it can be very hopeful and helpful.”

Perhaps it's this chance for redemption that keeps the animals safe in prisoners' care. According to Maleah Stringer, the executive director of the Animal Protection League shelter in Anderson, Ind., animals in prisons are at no more risk of danger or injury than they would be if adopted by a member of the general public. 

Stringer runs the new FORWARD (Felines and Offenders Rehabilitation with Affection, Reformation and Dedication) program at Indiana's maximum-security Pendleton Correctional Facility, which began in April 2015. “There’s no more risk of the animals being hurt in prison than there is when we adopt to the normal public,” she says. “The guys stay out of trouble because they know if they get in trouble, they’re going to lose the program. We’ve had more issues with mistreated animals coming back from adoptions than we ever do from the prison program.”

In the end, it’s a win-win. Shelter cats get loving homes, and prisoners start on a path to reform. At Indiana State Prison, on the rare occasion a prisoner is released (the average sentence is 52 years to life), his cat goes home with him.

Both Fried’s and the Animal Protection League have received letters from current inmates thanking them for the opportunity to adopt. One convict, unnamed to protect his identity, wrote about his feline friend: “Ziggy is a constant joy to me, and he’s brought me so much love and happiness; I’m not sure I could have found [them] without him."

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
These Sparrows Have Been Singing the Same Songs for 1500 Years
iStock
iStock

Swamp sparrows are creatures of habit—so much so that they’ve been chirping out the same few tunes for more than 1500 years, Science magazine reports.

These findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, resulted from an analysis of the songs of 615 adult male swamp sparrows found in six different areas of the northeastern U.S. Researchers learned that young swamp sparrows pick up these songs from the adults around them and are able to mimic the notes with astounding accuracy.

Here’s what one of their songs sounds like:

“We were able to show that swamp sparrows very rarely make mistakes when they learn their songs, and they don't just learn songs at random; they pick up commoner songs rather than rarer songs,” Robert Lachlan, a biologist at London’s Queen Mary University and the study’s lead author, tells National Geographic.

Put differently, the birds don’t mimic every song their elders crank out. Instead, they memorize the ones they hear most often, and scientists say this form of “conformist bias” was previously thought to be a uniquely human behavior.

Using acoustic analysis software, researchers broke down each individual note of the sparrows’ songs—160 different syllables in total—and discovered that only 2 percent of sparrows deviated from the norm. They then used a statistical method to determine how the songs would have evolved over time. With recordings from 2009 and the 1970s, they were able to estimate that the oldest swamp sparrow songs date back 1537 years on average.

The swamp sparrow’s dedication to accuracy sets the species apart from other songbirds, according to researchers. “Among songbirds, it is clear that some species of birds learn precisely, such as swamp sparrows, while others rarely learn all parts of a demonstrator’s song precisely,” they write.

According to the Audubon Guide to North American Birds, swamp sparrows are similar to other sparrows, like the Lincoln’s sparrow, song sparrow, and chipping sparrow. They’re frequently found in marshes throughout the Northeast and Midwest, as well as much of Canada. They’re known for their piercing call notes and may respond to birders who make loud squeaking sounds in their habitat.

[h/t Science magazine]

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
18 Smart Products To Help You Kick Off Summer
iStock
iStock

Whether you’re trying to spiff up your backyard barbeque or cultivate your green thumb, these summertime gadgets will help you celebrate the season from solstice to the dog days.

1. ROSÉ WINE GLASSES; $60

Rosé Wine Glass
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Wine not? When the temperature rises and beer isn’t your thing, reach for the rosé. Riedel’s machine-blown SST (see, smell, taste) wine glasses will give the sparkly stuff ample room to breathe, making every refreshing sip worthwhile.

Find It: Amazon

2. NERF N-STRIKE ELITE SURGEFIRE; $25

Nerf SurgeFire
Hasbro

Why It’s Cool: The N-Strike Elite SurgeFire (say that five-times-fast) sports a pump-action rotating drum for maximum foam-based firepower and holds up to 15 Nerf darts in its arsenal.

Find It: Hasbro Toy Shop

3. BUSHEL & BERRY PLANTS; $34

plant
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: You don’t need to have a green thumb to create a brag-worthy garden this summer. Besides producing snackable mid-season berries, these open-growing bushes can be planted immediately for easy set-up to make you look like a botanical pro.

Find It: Amazon

4. INFLATABLE DONUT; $17

Doughnut float
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: When the only dunking you’re doing is taking a dip in the pool, a 48-inch inflatable donut is the perfect way to stay afloat.

Find It: Amazon

5. STAR SPANGLED SPATULA; $21

American flag spatula
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: O say can you see by your grill’s charcoal light / Meats so proudly we cooked ... with a star spangled spatula. Depending on the specific model, these all-American grilling tools (designed in New Jersey and made in Chicago) are made of a combination of walnut and stainless steel or nylon. As an added bonus: 5 percent of the proceeds go to the Penn Abramson Cancer Center.

Find It: Amazon

6. MLB HOT DOG BRANDERS; $8 AND UP

MLB San Diego Padres Hot Dog BBQ Brander
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Take your hot dogs, sausages, brats, and more out to the ballgame without ever leaving your grill. These branders from Pangea Brands are dishwasher-safe and made of ceramic-coated cast iron.

Find It: Amazon

7. UNA GRILL; $139

grill
MoMA Shop

Why It’s Cool: This portable charcoal-heated grill is as efficient as it is stylish. The compact size lets you cook at the park, after hitting up MoMA, or anywhere in between.

Find It: MoMa Shop

8. HAMBURGER GRILLING BASKET; $21


Why It’s Cool: Made of steel and finished with a non-stick coating, this grilling tool flips four burgers at once and maintains perfect burger proportions to guarantee nobody stays hungry for long.

Find It: Amazon

9. COPPER FIRE PIT; $121

metal fire pit
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: The grill isn’t the only place for a roaring fire this summer. This 100 percent solid copper fire pit makes for the perfect gathering spot at your next BBQ, or just to warm up after a cool summer evening.

Find It: Amazon

10. BENDY STRAW POOL NOODLE FLOAT; $10

Bendy Straw Inflatable Pool Float
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Inflatable pool floats shouldn’t be boring, and this bendy straw float definitely does not suck. This unique spin on traditional pool noodles is sure to make for some cheesy jokes, but at least you’ll be comfortable floating in the pool or at the beach.

Find It: Amazon

11. GRIDDLER DELUXE; $111

Cuisinart GR-150 Griddler Deluxe
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: If you’re looking for some serious panini power, this griddler offers up a versatile lineup of six cooking options in one. And with dual-zone functions you can sling burgers while searing filets and sautéeing vegetables all at the same time.

Find It: Amazon

12. VINTAGE SNOW CONE MAKER; $30

Vintage Snow Cone Maker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: With its old-timey design, dual cone shelf, and endless flavor options, this snow cone maker is guaranteed create a cool treat.

Find It: Amazon

13. DACHSHUND CORN ON THE COB HOLDERS; $7

Dog Corn Holders
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: While meat-lovers will inevitably scarf down a lot of hot dogs this summer, vegetarians who happen to love another kind of dog will be smitten with these stainless steel, Dachshund-shaped corn on the cob prongs. They’re a fun spin on a summer grilling favorite.

Find It: Amazon

14. ICE CREAM SANDWICH MAKER; $16

Ice Cream Sandwich Maker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Four sandwiches are better than one, especially when they're of the ice cream variety. Make four ice cream sandwiches at once with this homemade spin on a classic cold treat.

Find It: Amazon

15. UE WONDERBOOM; $68

Bluetooth speaker
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Besides delicious food and great company, some memorable tunes are required for the quintessential barbeque. This portable bluetooth speaker offers up some booming sound in a small package, and with a battery power of 10 hours on a single charge you can keep the party going all night.

Find It: Amazon

16. ROLLORS GAME; $38

Rollors Backyard Game
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: When you’re sick of bocce, hate horseshoes, and you’re over cornhole, you might want to take up “rollors,” a family-friendly game that combines your favorite traditional backyard festivities into one game for people of all ages.

Find It: Amazon

17. HAMMOCK; $174

hammock
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Rest easy knowing that this 100 percent hand-woven and hand-dyed cotton hammock contributes to artisan job-creation in Thailand.

Find It: Amazon

18. VSSL SURVIVAL ESSENTIALS; $59

Emergency Survival Tent Outdoors
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Compact, convenient, and durable, the VSSL Shelter can come in handy when things don’t go quite as planned. The device—which features a lightweight emergency shelter all within the handle of a compact, weather-resistant aluminum LED flashlight—is designed to keep you safe under the worst conditions.

Find It: Amazon

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios