The brochure caught our attention. “Help! Rescued Cats Sent to Prison. What are you in for?” We immediately set out to learn what the cats needed at the Maryland Correctional Institution for Women (MCIW) in Jessup.
As it turns out, the prison’s 3-year old Rescue Cat Program has been a lifesaver for older and less adoptable cats at the local municipal shelter, Anne Arundel County Animal Care & Control (AACACC), by offering them “a home, love, companionship, and a second chance at life.” While the cats are altered and receive food and annual veterinary care, some suffer chronic conditions, such as arthritis or allergies, and one recently died of an unchecked tumor. The inmates, who earn $1.25 on average per day, were hoping to raise funds for veterinary emergencies and other expenses.
The program was the brainchild of Linda Matulaitis of MCE, the entity that trains and employs inmates. Over the years, Matulaitis never turned a blind eye to the stray cats that roamed onto the property. Two prior wardens declined to let the cats return after she had them altered, but Warden Margaret Chippendale recognized the benefits that a foster care program could have for animals and inmates alike. Nineteen (19) cats currently reside at MCIW and Chippendale would like to expand the program by 50%.
Sande Riesett and I recently visited MCIW with Sherry Durm, the shelter’s rescue coordinator, and Chris Weinstein, a shelter volunteer and board member of Friends of AACACC, a nonprofit created by the shelter’s volunteers, which oversees the regular care for the cats. MCIW houses 750 inmates, who apply for and are screened for the program. Many cats accompany their handlers to their jobs by day and all live in the units at night. “It has a calming effect,” noted Warden Chippendale. “It teaches responsibility and the women aren’t going to do anything to jeopardize losing their cat.” Once released from prison, inmates may apply to adopt their cat (normal procedures apply) and 12 cats have been adopted thus far.
The cats live enviable lives with constant companionship. We met Cosmo, a gorgeous 18-pound boy, whose handler referred to him as her “little man” and cradled him like a baby. Chris of the Friends of AACACC group previously fostered Cosmo and the two have corresponded about his care. “The minute he came into my life, things changed for the better for me and I can’t thank you enough for sending him my way. Please do not worry about him, he is sharing his kindness and receiving unending love in return,” his handler wrote in a letter.
We then met a pampered kitty named Lynn, who wore a rose on her collar. “Do you want to see her trick?” her handler asked, who then put her head in her hands and pretended to sob. The kitty no longer wanted our attention and rushed to her handler, rubbing against her until she stopped. “I call her my comfort cat. An older inmate recently tripped and fell and Lynn was the first on the scene, staying with her until help arrived.” We left MCIW more hopeful than we had been in some time, as we witnessed the immeasurable benefits to both women and animals of this lifesaving initiative.
It’s hard to overstate the impact these 19 cats have on the inmates. Warden Chippendale described “a change in atmosphere” since their arrival, but the handlers were even more effusive. “It reacquaints you to loving and feeling again,” explained one handler. “The cats don’t care what you’ve been through or what you look like; they just want to be with you.”
Today, we are excited to launch the Show Your Soft Side Prison Cat Program, to raise funds for the cats at MCIW. Our goal is to expand the program and provide funding for emergency veterinary care, dental procedures, medications, and other daily necessities. We will coordinate our efforts with shelter staff, who have firsthand knowledge of the cats’ needs, and Friends of AACACC, which co-sponsors the program with MCIW. This program is not only saving lives, but changing lives, and we hope you’ll join us in supporting it.