Inmates at Chile’s largest prison find comfort in caring for stray cats

Some say they were brought here to eliminate mice. Others claim to have entered on their own.

What everyone can agree on, including those who have lived or worked the longest in Chile’s largest prison, is that the cats were here first.

For decades they walked along the prison’s high walls, sunbathed on the metal roof and darted between crowded cells of 10 men each. To prison officials they were something of a peculiarity and mostly ignored. The cats continued to multiply by the hundreds.

Then prison officials realized something else: The resident felines weren’t just helpful for the rat problem. They were also good for the prisoners.

“They are our comrades,” said Carlos Nuñez, a bald prisoner showing off a 2-year-old tabby he called Feita, or Ugly, from behind prison bars. As he cared for several cats during his 14-year sentence for home burglary, he said he discovered their special essence, compared to, say, a cellmate or even a dog.

“A cat makes you worry, you feed it, you take care of it, you give it special attention,” he said. “When we were out and free, we never did that. We discovered it here.”

Known simply as “the Pen,” the main penitentiary in Santiago, Chile’s capital, which opened 180 years ago, has long been known as a place where men live in cages and cats roam free. What is now more clearly understood is the positive effect of the prison’s approximately 300 cats on the 5,600 human residents.

The presence of the felines “changed the mood of the inmates, regulated their behavior and strengthened their sense of responsibility in their duties, especially in caring for the animals,” said the prison director, Col. Helen Leal González, who has two cats at home, Reina and Dante, and a collection of cat figurines on his desk.

“Prisons are hostile places,” she added in her office, wearing a tight bun, truncheon and combat boots. “So, obviously, when you see an animal giving affection and generating these positive feelings, it logically causes a change in behavior, a change in mindset.”

Prisoners informally adopt the cats, work together to care for them, share food and beds, and, in some cases, build them little homes. In return, the cats provide something invaluable in a prison notorious for overcrowding and squalid conditions: love, affection and acceptance.

“Sometimes you’re depressed and it’s like she senses you’re a little down,” said Reinaldo Rodriguez, 48, who will be jailed until 2031 on firearms charges. “She comes and glues herself to you. She will touch your face with her.”

He was referring to Chillona, ​​a laid-back black cat who has become the darling of a nine-man cell packed with bunk beds. Mr. Rodriguez said he and his cellmates used a bowl of water to coax Chillona out of hiding after his previous inmate caretaker was moved to another section of the prison.

“Little by little it would get closer to us,” he said. “She is the owner of this room now. She’s the boss.” Several cellmates each claimed that her bed was her favorite.

The pairing of convicted criminals and animals is certainly nothing new. During World War II, German prisoners of war in New Hampshire adopted wildlife as pets, including: according to one accounta bear cub.

Formal programs to connect prisoners and animals became more common in the late 1970s and, after consistently positive results, have expanded around the world, including to Japanyou Holland AND Brazil.

They have become especially popular in the United States. In Arizona, prisoners train wild horses to patrol the U.S. border with Mexico. In Minnesota and Michigan, prisoners train dogs for the blind and deaf. And in Massachusetts, prisoners help care for injured or sick wildlifesuch as hawks, coyotes and raccoons.

Linking inmates and dogs has been repeatedly shown to lead to “decreased recidivism, greater empathy, better social skills and a safer and more positive relationship between inmates and prison officials,” said Beatriz Villafaina-Domínguez, a Spanish researcher who examined 20 separate studies of such programs.

Dogs were the most commonly used animal in prisons, followed by horses, and in most programs, animals are brought to inmates or vice versa. In Chile, however, prisoners have developed an organic bond with the stray cats that live next to them.

Yet there was a time when the relationship wasn’t so positive. Ten years ago, the cat population was expanding uncontrollably and many cats were falling ill, even developing a contagious infection that left some cats blind. The situation “has also stressed the inmates themselves,” said Carla Contreras Sandoval, a prison social worker with two tattooed cats.

So, in 2016, prison officials finally allowed volunteers to care for the cats. A Chilean organization called the Felinnos Foundation has since worked with International Humanitarian Society systematically collect all cats to treat, sterilize and neuter them. They have now reached almost everyone.

The program’s success was partly due to the inmates, Ms. Sandoval said. Prisoners collect cats that need care and bring them to volunteers.

Recently, four women dragged cat carriers across the prison yard, searching for several felines, including Lucky, Aquila, Dropón and her six new kittens, and Mr. Nuñez’s cat, Ugly.

The courtyard was chaotic, packed for an inmates’ soccer match, but the prisoners politely gave way to the women.

Quickly, men cradling cats in their tattooed arms descended the stairs into the courtyard, handing the animals to volunteers through prison bars. In one arrest, Denys Carmona Rojas, 57, an inmate serving eight years on a firearms charge, gifted a litter of kittens in a box. He said he helped raise many kittens in his cell, recounting one instance in which he fed special milk to a litter of kittens after their mother died during childbirth.

“You dedicate yourself to the cat. You take care of it, you keep an eye on it, you give it love,” she said, smiling to show off her missing front teeth. “The feeling that comes out of it is, there’s nothing wrong, man.”

As with prisoners, the living conditions of cats vary depending on the section of the prison. During a recess period in one of the busiest areas, where 250 prisoners share 26 cells, prisoners filled a narrow passageway, with clothes drying on top and cats darting between their feet.

Eduardo Campos Torreblanca, who is serving three years for aggravated robbery, said each cell cared for at least one cat, but his kitten had recently died. “He was small, a child,” he said. “And someone stepped on it.”

When volunteers first arrived in 2016, they numbered nearly 400 cats, a figure that excluded newborn kittens and a large colony of cats that were mostly attached to the roof. Now that number is continually decreasing.

Why? Consider Mr. Nuñez, the man convicted of home invasion who has two years left on his sentence.

When he is released, what will happen to his cat, Ugly? It was easy, he said, she said. “She’s coming with me.”