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Mission Creek Corrections Center Launches Cat Adoption Program

November 20, 2015

By Rachel Friederich

DOC Communications

Inmate Valorie Matz pets Checkers, an eight-week old kitten.

Inmate Valorie Matz pets Checkers, an eight-week old kitten.

BELFAIR – Cydney Berthel cradles Halo, a black and gray striped tabby in her arms as the kitten gets a booster shot and worming medicine.

“You’re doing so good! You’re doing so good!” Berthel, an offender at Mission Creek Corrections Center, repeats to the tiny ball of fur as a high-pitched sound, more of a squeak than a meow, emits from the kitten.

Berthel, 40, is one of about a dozen offenders at Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women, MCCCW, serving as cat handlers in the prison’s newly-launched cat adoption program called the “Pawsitive Prison Project.” The goal of the program is to help get homeless cats adopted while offering a chance for offenders to develop valuable life skills

Berthel, who is serving a 22-month sentence for theft, said that like many of the offenders, cats from the shelter often have come from traumatic situations like abuse or abandonment.

“The kittens came from bad situations, and their behaviors have changed just like us.” Berthel said. “We’re nurturing them, and they’re nurturing us inmates. It’s (the program) a win-win for us. We’re all getting ready for a new start.”

Angela Hosking, a corrections unit supervisor at MCCCW who helped launch the program, interviewed prison and animal shelter organizations involved with other prison pet adoption programs and used the information she gathered to customize a program for Mission Creek.

Several other Department of Corrections prisons have pet adoption programs such as the Pawsitive Dogs program at Airway Heights Corrections Center in Spokane and Cat Adoption program at Larch Corrections Center in Yacolt. In fact, Eleanor Vernell helped start the cat adoption program when she was superintendent at Larch Corrections Center and, after becoming superintendent at Mission Creek, advocated for starting a similar program at the women’s facility.

“The animals have had a very positive impact on the program participants.” Hosking said. “The program has given a new sense of purpose for some, been therapeutic for others, and offered skill-building and experience to those who are interested in the veterinary field.”

The project, launched Oct. 28, allows cats and kittens from the Kitsap Humane Society to live with the offenders in their cells until they are adopted. The humane society provides all the food and supplies the offenders need to take care of the cats. The offenders do the rest, including feeding, watering, grooming and scooping litter boxes. They also keep daily logs about the cats noting any behavioral or health issues. Since the program launched three weeks ago, the prison has housed a dozen kittens and cats. So far, two have been adopted.

In order to become a cat handler, offenders must fill out an application and describe why they want to be handler and what they hope to gain from the experience. They must also have at least six months left in their sentence, remained free of major infractions for six months and must have never committed any crimes against animals or vulnerable people.

Hosking adds the program is popular with the offenders. Though the program has been operating less than one month, there are already 50 offenders who have filled out applications to become cat handlers.

More than rehabilitating people

“Before I was in here, I was a productive member of society, but I messed up and now taxpayers are paying thousands of dollars to keep me here,” said 52-year-old Shauna Teagel, who is currently serving a 40-month sentence for identify theft and drug charges. “I feel like this is the little bit of payback I can send. It’s been very rewarding.”

She adds the program has helped offenders improve interactions between correctional officers.

“We’ve gotten to know the officers better and its helped us establish a better relationship with them.”

Nichole Alexander, a 35-year-old offender who is serving a 75-month sentence for drug charges, says the experience of having a cat makes her “feel like a human again.”

“It’s just a comfort. We don’t get to touch or hug. And after a hard day, it’s great to climb into bed with a kitty.”

She says one of the benefits she and other offenders can provide the cats is constant, undivided attention that will help socialize the cats and make them more adoptable.

Alexander, for example, has tried everything she can to coax and calm a shy white and brown tabby named Patrick. She reads to him, so he can get used to her voice and occasionally, she’ll play country music for Patrick on a J-Pay player, (a small, digital audio listening device that offenders can pay to download and listen to music) to calm him down if it gets loud.

“He used to spend all his time inside his crate,” Alexander said. “His next move was out on top of a locker and now he climbs in our beds at 3 a.m. to play.”

Teagle adds providing a foster home to the kittens has rekindled some of her mothering instincts. She has five grown children and one grandchild and says she feels like she’s now motivated to become a better parent.

“This whole experience is helping me be a better mom,” said Teagle, who has an earned release date of March of 2017. “(The cats) make me want to nurture them even more. I’m looking forward to nurturing my grandchild.”Anyone interested in adopting a cat or who wants to donate supplies to the cat adoption program should contact the Kitsap Humane Society.

Watch the KING 5 story here.