Shelter Cats' Path to Freedom Starts Behind Bars

Inmate Barry Matlock says he finds it ironic that the cats he works with come to prison to get out of their cages. By Susan Schmitz/Shutterstock

A new program at Indiana's Pendleton Correctional Facility is getting shelter cats out of their cages and into the laps of prisoners.

FORWARD, which stands for Felines and Offenders Rehabilitation With Affection, Reformation and Dedication, provides a dozen cats with a large room of their own where prisoners care for them.

The cats are able to interact with people, increasing their chances of adoption, and participating prisoners learn responsibility by feeding, grooming and cleaning up after the felines.

FORWARD only began in late March, but both prison officials and inmates are already raving about it.

"This program means a lot. It helps me to calm down, to relax," inmate Barry Matlock told WISH-TV. "It gives me something to look forward to each and every day. It gives me a reason to strive to do better than I did yesterday, and to stay out of trouble."

To work with the cats, inmates must be screened and complete an interview with an employee of the Animal Protection League (APL), the no-kill shelter that provides the felines.

APL spokeswoman Michelle Rains said she's been flooded with requests from prisoners who want to work in the sanctuary.

"At first the other guys were teasing me, like, 'You really just pet cats all day?'" inmate Larry Welch told The Anderson Herald Bulletin. "But now they're like, 'Man, how do I sign up for that?'"

The cats' prison sanctuary was made possible through donations, and much of their play area — which includes scratching posts and floor-to-ceiling climbing structures — was built from recycled materials by the inmates.

Although the sanctuary isn't open to the public, the cats can be adopted by prison staff or inmates' families. When a kitty gets a forever home, APL brings another cat into the prison sanctuary.

"It's kind of ironic that these cats had to come to prison to have some freedom," Matlock said.

It may seem like the cats benefit the most from the program, but APL Director Maleah Stringer say the inmates take away just as much from it.

"I've had offenders tell me when they got an animal, it was the first time they can remember they were allowing themselves to care about something, to love something," she said. "That's a pretty powerful statement."