Monday, November 15, 2010

felons and felines

William Minnick is a wiry-haired inmate at the Indiana State Prison, a maximum-security correctional facility about 50 miles east of Chicago. He's been behind bars since 1982, when he was convicted of assaulting and killing a young woman in her home. Minnick knows a thing or two about the darkness of prison life; he was on death row for many years until his sentence was stayed in 2004. Even then, he remained confined in a small cell with little to live for.

Enter Mr. Magestyk, Minnick's slightly overweight and clearly pampered cat. The pair became fast friends in 2006 when Minnick, now 47, adopted Magestyk (pictured below) as part of a pilot program to allow inmates to care for homeless cats. Today, Minnick and Mr. Magestyk are inseparable. By all accounts, the introduction of this little ball of fur into Minnick's cell has given him a new lease on life.

I learned about the Indiana State program after coming across a fascinating blog post detailing one woman's quest to discover how cats are making life better in a place where 70 percent of convicts are there for murder. Diana Korten, who not only visited the prison but also interviewed corrections officers and inmates there about the program, found that aside from giving inmates something to love and be responsible for, the cats have mellowed them out considerably—which means fewer incidents of violence for officers to deal with.

Not that the cats haven't instigated a few rumbles... In one case, an inmate was found murdered after he had allegedly spit soda on another inmate's cat. Another time, several convicts put out a contract on the life of whomever was responsible for killing the cat of a particular prisoner. The cat killer was never found, but the fact that his own life was threatened illustrates how closely the inmates at Indiana State have bonded with their felines!

Simply put, this program appears to be a blessing for a population that doesn't have much else going for it. And considering there are so many cats in need of homes, it seems like a great system to try out in other prisons across the country. Some might argue, of course, that allowing prisoners to own cats or other animals is a pleasure they shouldn't be afforded, especially when the crimes they've committed are particularly heinous. But it's my belief that convicts should be given some way to grow as people while they're behind bars. And if a prisoner can find some humanity with the help of a pet then why shouldn't he have that opportunity? It should be noted, by the way, that inmates in the Indiana State Prison program have to pay out of their own pockets for the upkeep of their cats—which means for most of them that they have to work to earn money for food, toys, and medical expenses. So the kitties give their owners that extra incentive to stay on task, too.

Anyway, if you're interested in learning more, here's a short piece detailing some of the history of the Indiana State Prison cat program, and an article on pet therapy for prisoners. You can also check out the video below on cats in prisons, including at Indiana State (Minnick and Magestyk make an appearance). &infin


  1. This program is similar to "Puppies Behind Bars," with the difference that the dogs are being trained for service and the inmates have to let them go. One could quibble whether one is superior to the other in its "redemptive," give back to society, etc., quality. I, for one, find nothing wrong with a program that humanizes wasted lives and makes it easier for those who care for them to do so.

  2. Anonymous10:15 PM

    My friend was the person this animal killed. I truly cant believe that you would allow this man to have any happiness in prison. He needs to be in his cell 24 yours a day with nothing to do. He smiles and laughed in the video my friend will never laugh because of him. It makes me sick to see this!

  3. Anonymous9:54 PM

    I'm torn. I get the puppy program where they train the dogs to become service animals, and then they place said dog (who's now been bettered) into outside service positions... but the cat program, where they keep the animals, not only seems like a reward for committing horrible crimes, but should any other convict develop beef with a cat owner, it seems like the poor cat would be the most reasonable easiest way to hurt them..... and the cats are subject to the same lockdown hours. Doesn't seem fair to restrict a free-range animal who travels miles in a day to a 8 foot prison cell 23 hours at a crack.


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