In Chile's largest prison, inmates are learning some invaluable life lessons from the many stray cats who have been living there for decades.
Having a cat can be a wonderful and enriching experience for individuals. Each cat has its own distinct personality and mannerisms, making their pet parents even more attached to them. Cats proved to be a saving grace for the inmates in Chile's 180-year-old main penitentiary, known as "the Pen." According to The New York Times, the feline creatures have been living inside the walls of the prison for many decades.
No one is entirely sure about their origins but can confirm that they have coexisted with the prisoners for as long as anyone can remember. The prison staff mostly ignored the cats initially until they began multiplying greatly. They soon realized that the cats were a big help to the inmates at the facility. Carlos Nuñez, a balding prisoner, shares how the cats were his beloved companions.
Nuñez has cared for many cats during his 14-year sentence for robbing houses. He revealed how having a cat was different from having a dog. He said, "A cat makes you worry about it, feed it, take care of it, give it special attention. When we were outside and free, we never did this. We discovered it in here." Presently, the facility has almost 300 cats and 5,600 inmates.
Col. Helen Leal González, the prison's warden, revealed that the cats had a profound impact on most inmates by helping them with their behavior and instilling a sense of responsibility. González also has two cats of her own. She stated how prisons were inherently very hostile environments. Seeing an animal providing love in such an environment was bound to have a unique effect on the inmates.
Over time, the prisoners have grown very attached to cats, with some of them informally adopting them. They also share their food and beds with their feline companions. Some inmates have put in the effort to build them little houses. The cats provide them with much-needed affection and love. Reinaldo Rodriguez, a 48-year-old prisoner, commented on how the cats could gauge their behavior and offer support by being close to them.
Convicted criminals finding solace in animals is not a very new thing. German prisoners of war adopted wildlife as pets during the Second World War. There are also official programs to help prisoners by getting them involved with animals. These programs became more prominent during the 1970s with excellent results and have since spread to Japan, the Netherlands and Brazil.
Beatriz Villafaina-Domínguez has conducted 20 separate studies of these programs and provided conclusive evidence that they are incredibly helpful to inmates. These programs resulted in prisoners having a better sense of empathy, better social skills and a lesser chance to indulge in crime. Most of these programs attempt to foster a link between prisoners and animals, while the inmates in Chile naturally developed a bond with the cats that thronged the prison.
Realizing just how important cats were to the prison, the officials allowed volunteers to come in to provide care for the cats. Felinnos Foundation, a Chilean organization, stepped in to collaborate with Humane Society International to periodically provide cats with essential care. Prisoners also helped with this by bringing in cats that desperately needed care. It is heartwarming to see how connections between humans and animals can induce such positive change.