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Cats in Prison Attract Overseas Interest

August 11, 2015

By Rachel Thomson,

DOC Communications

Group photo of staff and visitors

Back row: Larch Adopt A Cat Program Coordinator Jason Richer, LCC Classification Counselor Monique Camacho Bottom Row: West Columbia Gorge Humane Society volunteer Caroline Reiswig, Woo Jeong Kim, Hyun Jae Ro, LCC Superintendent Dona Zavislan, Yuree Ko, Hyong Min Kim, and LCC Administrative Assistant Danette Gadberry.

YACOLT – A team of university students traveled more than 8,000 miles last week to check out some cats living with inmates inside the Larch Corrections Center.

Why? To see if pets in prison can change the behavior of offenders, and help them become productive citizens when they leave prison and return to society.

“We want to connect humans and animals together because we believe youth are in desperate need of proper human bonding, warm love and hope,” said Yuree Ko, part of the team from Seoul, South Korea.

The rate of recidivism among youthful offenders in South Korea is 40 percent, Ko said, and is even higher among adult offenders. According to a report by the Korean National Police Agency, adult recidivism rates in South Korea have risen has high as 70 percent in recent years.

“We think youth in detention centers need more of something else to succeed,” said Ko, whose team visited Larch on Aug. 6.

Ko and her team are competing in a contest sponsored by the Korean electronics company, LG. The contest, “LG Global Challenger,” allows undergraduate students to travel internationally to explore technology and social justice projects that could be used to improve the lives of people in Korea. Members of the winning team will receive scholarships and internship opportunities with LG.

Currently there are 10 cats residing at Larch, with a total of 20 offenders participating in the program, which started in 2011. Offenders must not have committed any violent crimes and be free of major infractions to be part of the program.

The Department of Corrections has not yet completed any long-term research to judge effectiveness, but Monique Camacho, a classification counselor at Larch who helped launch the cat adoption program, said she sees anecdotal evidence every day highlighting how the cats and offenders have a positive impact on each other’s lives.

“Having an animal forces offenders to not think just about themselves,” Camacho said. “Instead of just looking out for themselves and their own needs, they’re showing responsibility and compassion.”

Todd Payne, 56, who is serving a sentence for manufacturing, possessing and delivering drugs, talked about caring for Melody, a 14-pound black American shorthair.

“I have to clean her, bathe her, feed her, clip her nails,” he said, noting that when the cat first arrived, she was apprehensive, did not get along well with others, and sometimes tried to bite.

After staying with Payne for a few weeks, he says she’s calmed down quite a bit. Sometimes, she still tries to bite when startled, or when someone tries to pet her the wrong way, “But she’s a great cat. She still doesn’t like other animals, but she lets me take her out, though.”

Harold Bain, who is 52 and serving a sentence for possession of stolen property, said that living with a cat has given them a renewed purpose in life.

“For us, we go through whatever we’ve gone through to wind up here. But living with them, we give them therapy and it gives us therapy,” he said. “It makes us feel human again.”

Ko said her team will submit a report to the South Korean government. She hopes her country will implement programs similar to the one at Larch in an effort to not only reduce the high rates of recidivism among youthful offenders, but also control an exploding animal population. She noted that in Korea there are no spay⁄neuter programs and virtually no animal shelters.

Animals in prisons are becoming commonplace in Washington state and around the nation. The Washington State Department of Corrections has animal interaction programs at each of its 12 prisons. Studies have shown that offenders who have regular interaction with animals often experience more calmness and a higher sense of self-esteem.

The South Korean students are visiting other facilities in addition to Larch, including a dog adoption program at a prison in Oregon and another program in New York that allows inmates to train shelter dogs to become service animals.