Cats started the Indiana State Prison cat program. One by one, over the years, they arrived, entering the prison through the bars of the North Gate, depositing litters of kittens into the eager arms and hearts of the inmates there.
Indiana State Prison is a men’s maximum security prison. Before coming here, I had mentioned my impending visit in various conversations. Concerned cat lovers had fretted over the fate of cats confined with such a rough crowd. 70% of the offenders incarcerated at Indiana State Prison are there for murder.
However, during my interviews, I found that whatever the complexities of their relationships with other people, most of the offenders in the cat program have always been animal lovers. And their devotion to their cats goes beyond providing these felines with security. These men adore their cats. Again and again, they affirmed that the cats had changed their lives, calming their anger, offering them love and teaching them about the joys and sacrifices of responsibility.
“When I arrived here, I had nothing to lose.” Explains ‘Bear’. “When you have nothing to lose—you can get yourself into a lot of trouble. When I got my first cat, it changed me. There is something about holding a cat that makes your anger melt away. And if someone does something that upsets me—I have to remember my cat. I can’t keep my cat if I get into trouble.” He smiles wryly, reaching for little Ziggy. Bear’s last cat died recently from a pulmonary disorder. Bear was devastated, as were the other men on his floor. Because the cat died of natural causes, he was able to get a new kitten. Ziggy was sourced through a local animal shelter that works with the prison.
He and his cellmate, Tom (who also has a cat, Booger) had to ‘kitten-proof’ their cell. They took down the cat tree that they had constructed for Booger and the previous cat, concerned that the very energetic and inquisitive kitten might injure himself on it. They also built a makeshift ‘cage’ for Ziggy to keep him safe when Tom and Bear have to be away from the cell.
According to the rules, all the cats are supposed to be leased at all times, but the guards and administration are very lax about these regulations, observing closely and using their discretion in individual cases, always with an eye toward the safety of the cat.
The gorgeous, fluffly Milo tends to stay in Mark Booher’s cell. Though the cat’s outgoing, sociable personality draws many visitors to his cell. The showers are immediately adjacent to Mr. Booher’s cell and Milo will pad over to stay close to his person. “A while back, I had a court date so I was gone for 10 days. The last thing I did before leaving was to shower. Milo followed along. When I got back, everyone told me that whenever he heard the showers turned on, Milo would hop over to see if it was me. It was nice to know that he was missing me.” Mr. Booher continues, “I was really lucky to get a cat like Milo. He has softened me. In a place like this, you have to keep your front up all the time, but not with Milo.”
Mark’s mother has always been a cat lover. Being able to swap cat anecdotes helps him stay close to her. “If it wasn’t for Milo, there wouldn’t be much to talk about.” He gestures out at the prison. “The cat program is the best thing happening here. It gives my life a purpose.”
James Stone got his first cat ‘Jinx’ years ago, well before the prison formalized the cat program. An inmate in his building had found a cat in the yard and brought it to his cell. “James, something is wrong with this cat.” The inmate called on him because James had a reputation for caring about animals.- Examining the cat, James assured him that the cat was fine—just in labor. Both men attended the birth. As the kittens matured, the other man sold these highly prized companions to other offenders for hundreds of dollars. But the runt of the litter was twitchy, with a crooked tail, poor balance and patches of fur missing. “He was real pathetic and nobody wanted that kitten. The guy was asking $300 cash, then a week later he dropped the price to $200, then $100—then $50 in kit. Finally, he just wanted to get rid of it. I was afraid he might kill it, so I took it.” Like the tale of the Ugly Duckling, ‘Jinx’ grew to be the most handsome and popular cat of the litter. “Even Major Cabanaw loved him. I’d come back to my cell and the guys would tell me,’The Major was here, hanging out in your cell with Jinx.’”
Indeed, Major Cabanaw has a photo of James Stone and Jinx on the bulletin board in his office. “I am 100% in favor of the cat program.” He proclaims proudly. “I don’t know of any other corrections facility that has a program like this—but I would recommend it for all prisons. The bottom line—it gives the offenders a reason to behave. It changes them. I’ve got guys in here who caused all kinds of problems—then they got a cat and thats it—they settle down and haven't caused any trouble since.”
A Major is the highest ranking corrections officer in the system. Indiana State Prison is only supposed to have one major overseeing the internal workings of the prison. My guide for the day, Vince Morton, is also a Major, but he was promoted to an administrative position overseeing prisoner grievances and other special programs (like the cat program.)
I asked if Major Cabanaw had concerns for the safety of the cats. “Of course, we always want to ensure the safety of the cats, and the staff is great about keeping an eye out for them. But mostly, it’s the offenders keeping them safe. I have never once seen an offender kill his own cat. We screen them to be sure they have no history of animal abuse. But I’ll tell you this, there was a guy killed in here because he had spit soda pop onto someone else’s cat.”
Kris St. Martin, a corrections officer, tells me, “There was a guy here whose cat was killed a couple of years ago. The guys on the floor put out a contract on that cat killer. No one was ever able to figure out who had done it, but if they had, well, as I said, there was a contract on him…Mostly these guys are really protective of the cats and they all benefit from their presence. A cat will visit with the offenders in their neighboring cells, and it means a lot to all of them. Occasionally, we get someone who has issues with casts, so we move them out to another building.”
When I visited, James Stone was providing a bit of ‘kitty day-care’ for another offender's cat, while he looked after his own cat. “Yeah, I take care of this guy’s cat while he’s at work.” James smiles proudly. This seems to be a fairly common practice among the cat program participants.
Jinx passed away from natural causes. The local shelter helped James find a cat that look a lot like Jinx. “ ‘Jinxster’ has the white paws, which Jinx didn’t have, and his personality is different, but he is still a great cat.”
Jinxster walked right up to me and offered a friendly overture as James continued to speak. “I have a temper. One time some things happened and I was feeling pretty serious about doing something. I was ready to do something. But Raol put Jinxster in my arms, and I just held him until I didn’t need to do something anymore.”
Slightly sheepish, he claims, “During my first 15 years here, I was trouble. I was out there in the yard, just making trouble.” Vince Morton and Kris St. Martin nod their heads knowingly, they both knew him before his first cat. “But Jinx changed all that. I’m a different person now.”
He shows me the marvelous cat house he built for his cats from scrap lumber and other odds and ends. I am amazed at how intuitively these men have responded to their cats needs. All of them have responded to the cats desire for height by constructing shelves for the cats.
“They certainly are innovative and resourceful.” Vince Morton affirms. Cat toys made from found pigeon feathers, boxes, string,scraps of carpet and fabric retrieved from dumpsters. A faux lambs wool paint roller makes a terrific cat toy.
The Assistant Superindent of the prison tells me, “I know there are people out there who think the offenders shouldn’t have cats. Some people don’t want them to have TV or anything to do. But I would support this cat program at any prison. Those cats humanize the men. The cats give them unconditional love, for many of those guys, that may be the only love they have ever experienced in their lives. And the bottom line for me, is that my staff are safer because of it. Every day that none of my staff gets hurt—that’s a good day. Watching over these guys is a dangerous job. And anything that makes that job safer is good with me.”
The administration and the staff that I spoke with emphatically supported the program. “I’ve been here for over 25 years, and I have seen a lot of offenders transformed by the cats.” Vince Morton is the man who kindly organized my visit and took a morning away from his vacation time to show me around. “This is an important program, I’m glad for an opportunity to tell people about it.”
My last interview was with Michael Overstreet, on death row. The program was only recently opened to Death Row inmates. Mr. Overstreet applied to the program and six weeks later received a darling black kitten, whom his seventeen year old daughter named ‘Athena’.
The cat program is virtually cost free to the prison (and tax-payers!) The program participants are responsible for all the expenses relating to the cat, including food, litter and veterinary bills. They can earn that money through work programs or through financial support from their families. “My grandmother is a real cat person.” Mr. Overstreet explains, “I asked her if she would sponsor my cat and she agreed…This cat has brought me so much happiness and order to my days. I used to sleep all day and be up all night. But now I have responsibilities.” Athena runs around the cell investigating everything, pressing her head through the bars to inquire about me. I was able to enter all of the other prisoner’s cells, but the rules are different on Death Row. No one enters the prisoner’s cells unless the offender is handcuffed, for one thing.
With each interview, I shook hands with the offenders. Vince Morton had advised me, “Most of the staff don’t know the specifics of the crimes these guys have committed. I find that its better not to know. It helps you be fair with them, if you aren’t thinking about what they did—and you absolutely don’t want to bring it up.”
All of our conversations focused on the cats, the logistics of prison litterbox maintenance, the importance of the cat relationship, anecdotes and one cat’s preference for ice water (all the inmates on Milo’s floor keep his water bowl nicely chilled by constantly refreshing his ice—since he has expressed a preference for cold water.)
I hadn’t known what to expect, never having been to a prison before. My entire idea of this world was based on The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile and Prison Break. I had anticipated mind-games and all sorts of possible unpleasantness. Instead, I found these men to be humble, respectful and profoundly sincere in their humanity and love for their cats.
In spite of the setting and the non-specific knowledge that their presence here was caused by unthinkable actions, I left the prison surprisingly uplifted, being so impressed by the compassion of the staff and the transformational impact of the cats.
When I arrived at my hotel two hours away in Lafayette, Indiana and had unpacked, I sat at my computer to download the photographs I had taken of the prison cats. Curiousity overcame me and I did a google search for ‘Michael Overstreet’.
As soon as I read it, I knew I would not look into the pasts of my other acquaintances.
Mr. Overstreet’s crime is the stuff of every woman’s worst nightmare.
On a deeply spiritual level, I believe in compassion for all beings. I believe in the right to rehabilitation. I believe that the entire universe benefits every time a heart is opened to true love. I believe these convictions so deeply that I believe that no matter how heinous the crime, that as long as the animal is safe, this cat program is good and right, not just as a reward for present good behavior, but because learning to love selflessly—even when the soul learning that love is about to be extinguished—the ability to experience that kind of love lightens the world. It makes the world a better place for everyone.
No studies have been done examining the impact of prison animal programs on recidivism. But Superintendent Buss assured me that the data for prisoner conduct within the facility is conclusive, the cats make the prison a better environment. The whole program is incredibly inspiring regarding the potential for animals to heal humans.
But Vince Morton was right, there are some things that it is better not to know.
Tonight I sit with great discomfort about Michael Overstreet, who loves his little cat Athena, and his four children and the grandmother that is sponsoring his kitten. Michael Overstreet whose hand I shook and with whom I spoke about the vagaries of love. (Source)