Kittens in prison: 'A little bit of normality in a place that isn't normal'

Women at Arohata Upper Prison have been looking after rescue kittens from the charity Kitten Inn as part of its foster programme, before they are sent off to new homes. 

The prison cats bring "a little bit of normality in a place that isn't normal", says Arohata deputy prison director Suzanne Abraham.

Four kittens currently reside at the prison, cared for by the prisoners who play, clean and get the kittens used to interacting with people. 

One woman at the prison said she was privileged to have the opportunity to work with the animals. 

"I call it therapeutic. It's peaceful and quiet," she explained. 

Another woman said she jumped at the opportunity to look after the kittens. 

"You get cuddles, you know you're making a difference," she said. "It's bringing [the kittens] out of their shell.

"It’s good for the prisoners as well. We get to do something different - who gets to play with kittens in jail?

"We’re helping the animals, we’re helping ourselves by getting out of the wing and doing something constructive."

Ms Abraham said the programme, in place since October, had been "really, really successful and watching the women come through and seeing the benefits they get from that has outweighed our expectations".

"Women who may have been challenging in the past, we've given them an opportunity to come in and work with the kittens and you see such a significant change in their demeanour," she explained. 

"They become quiet, softer spoken. I think it provides them that opportunity to be nurturing and care for the kittens. A softness, you see a softness about them."

Working with kittens fits in with how the prison looks at rehabilitation. 

"We've acknowledged we need to work differently with our women," Ms Abraham said. "A woman's pathway to offending is quite different. They've usually been victims of family violence or sexual abuse … Not all of them but a large percentage of our women are highly traumatised."

The kittens, who Ms Abraham said come out highly socialised, go back to the Kitten Inn when they are old enough - ready to go to new homes. 

One prisoner said her favourite is a kitten named Toby. "I love him, he’s awesome," she said. 

When asked if she would be sad when the kittens leave, she said she expected she would "break down in tears". 

"But that’s just me, I’m a softy when it comes to the kittens," she said.  

However, she said she is excited about the prospect of being able to look after the next litter of kittens in the future, some of which would need bottle feeding. 

The programme had been so successful it was expanding to the Arohata Prison in Tawa. 

Email Anna Whyte or follow @AnnaCWhyte

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Caring for the animals teaches prisoners more than just playing, says the prison’s director. Source: 1 NEWS