Becoming a cat person. Becoming a better person. What I learned from Dennis the cat at Idaho’s old penitentiary.

Idaho’s Old Penitentiary in Boise is a strange place.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the vibes there are disturbing. The Penitentiary was founded in 1872, even before Idaho was an independent state. It was meant to host some of the West’s most desperate criminals. The Prison was operational over 100 years, until the 1970s. The buildings have distinctively low ceilings. The cells are tiny, the space is crammed. There’s no running water and ventilation is limited. It’s really disturbing to think that people lived there in those conditions until the 1970s. I visited the cell blocks, the solitary confinement building, the maximum security building, and the gallows. Each one of the buildings was built by the inmates. It was a self-sustaining facility. Meaning prisoners produced their own food and even provided services for other institutions in Idaho. It was interesting to find that it was the inmates in the Old Penitentiary who did the laundry for the air force base in Mountain Home.

It was disturbing to think about the lives that passed through those walls and how even larger and deeper suffering was probably a result of being incarcerated under those conditions. The current staff had stories about ghost experiences, and being talked to and touched. I’m not surprised. Whenever I’ve suffered, I’ve had a hard time getting out of my head, shaking things off, getting my body to move again with grace. I’ve felt trapped in my body and my pain. I would imagine, that a suffering soul has a very hard time escaping their pain, forgiving, processing, overcoming, breaking through… breaking the chains of hatred and resentment and guilt and shame that tie them to this world.

I kind of have the temptation to reconstruct the memory and chose to remember my visit as a day at a rose garden with weird buildings, a rundown basketball/tennis court, and an exhibit of old guns– instead of the day I went to an inhumane space designed to perpetuate human suffering.

Even criminals, the worst criminals, are human. And the Penitentiary is a great reminder of this. There is a sweet, incredibly sweet story living inside the Penitentiary’s walls. And that’s the story I want to remember about my visit. As the legend goes, inmates snuck a kitten into the prison in 1952. This was of course against the rules. But the guards and warden decided to look away because they noticed that having the kitten around made prisoners gentler and easier to deal with. Not a huge surprise there. Having something or someone to care for gives us a sense of purpose. It also gives us the opportunity to practice the virtues that accompany the work of caregiving: compassion, dedication, patience, tenderness, risk prevention, gratitude when scary moments pass… you know all those sweetly feminine “prosocial emotions”.  

As the story goes, inmates named the cat Dennis. And Dennis lived among prisoners for 16 years. In 16 years, not a single one of the worst criminals of the West, people with all the excuses to hate life and the world, thought about harming Dennis. When Dennis passed, he was given a full-service funeral in the prison’s cemetery. What’s is even more symbolic is that although the cemetery was reserved for the corpses of inmates who weren’t claimed by family, the prisoners made a point to show that Dennis was indeed claimed and had a family. Dennis the cat has the only marked graved at the old pen.

This is a beautiful story. And a story that should serve as proof for why the prison/corrections system has to be redesigned. Sending people to prison is expensive. Not just for the department of correction but for society. Sending people to jail is harmful for the individual–who is likely going to have a harder time fitting in society after having been sent to jail. Not just because of the habits they can pick up in jail and the resentment built up (remember the horrible inhumane living conditions?), but because the system makes it hard for them to participate in civic life. In many cases, even their voting rights are taken away. Apparently, 5.2 million Americans remain disenfranchised because of conviction laws. I’ve been an American for 2.5 years. Voting is my most valued privilege. In my mind, you can’t be American if you can’t vote.

In addition, incarceration affects communities. Parental incarceration breaks up families and creates unstable environments: a perfect breeding ground for future at-risk kids. Not just at-risk of being sent to jail, but at-risk of dying in gang violence, or police violence for that matter. Here is a point where the “defund the police movement” has a strength. How about spending more money on prevention programs? Drug-abuse control programs? Social services? Workforce development programs? It’s not that the police is brutal, is that it may have no choice because it is part of a pernicious system that only spirals downwards…with cascading negative effects that persist for generations and get amplified with time.

Helping others helps us find meaning in life. Aristotle wrote that finding a virtuous life was achieved by loving rather than by being loved. And studies have shown that this is true, and it is not just that people who have found their purpose in life enjoy giving back, but actually, helping others can create the sense of meaning we are seeking.

Helping animals can help us build relationships and develop prosocial emotions. Studies have shown that interacting with animals, even fish, helps lower blood pressure, reduce anxiety, and decrease depression. Scientists have also observed that interacting with animals raise levels of oxytocin–which has healing properties (I’ve already written about this elsewhere). However, pet adoption programs in prison are extremely rare. Apparently, there is only a handful in the US, with a popular one being the cat adoption program at Indiana State Prison–a maximum security facility that houses the state’s death row. Apparently, inmates at Indiana’s State Prison build their own cat furniture and make cat toys. And it seems the cats are improving the lives of the prisoners. In fact, the program has been so successful that the Felines and Offenders Rehabilitation with Affection, Reformation, and Dedication (FORWARD) program was created at another maximum security prison in Indiana.

There are other prison cat programs. A 2006 prison-based animal program survey found that 100% of the prisons reported reduced inmate stress levels, 97% reported increased inmate relationship/trust skills, 93% reported increase inmate self-control, 89% said the program humanizes/calms the facility, 85% reported increased inmate work ethic, and 80% reported increased inmate sense of pride/accomplishment. Isn’t this beautiful?

How about prisons made a partnership with the animal rescue groups and started a program where both humans and animals can help each other out? Can animals help us learn how to be better humans? I think so. I’m grateful for Dennis the cat and I hope we can take his teachings and make something better for this world.

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