‘More-than-human’ pathways to rehabilitation?

On May 3rd 2012, the Washington Post reported on an innovative new programme being launched in Larch Corrections Center in Yacolt, WA.  Inmates at this minimum level security prison have been given the opportunity to adopt a homeless or badly-behaved cat.  A cat rescue organization called Cuddly Catz currently has two cats at Larch, who are cared for by two offenders who live with the cat in a 10-by-12-foot room.  Local businesses and organisations have supplied the food and equipment needed, and volunteers have helped train prisoners in pet care. 

The clear benefits of the scheme are two-fold.  Firstly, the cat themselves have gained a second chance in life – sometimes literally.  “With all of her behaviour problems, she would most likely be euthanized,” said offender Joseph Contreras. “And I just couldn’t imagine that.”  Secondly, in taking care of and interacting with the cats, the prisoners have experienced some huge benefits of their own, particularly in fostering a sense of care and compassion within the wider community of the Corrections Center.  Furthermore, once the cats are deemed healthy and happy, they are hoped to be eligible for outside adoption.  That way, Larch hopes to expand the programme to having long-term benefits for feline re-homing charities more widely – thus reducing the number of unwanted and abandoned cats in the local area.  According to Counsellor Monique Camacho, “The offenders don’t get a lot of chances to do right by the community … It gives them an opportunity to directly impact the community.” 

In other prisons, similar examples of other projects designed to help prisoners gain a sense of ‘giving something back’ through purposeful endeavours includes such things as the US ‘Puppies behind Bars project’ where prisoners raise guide dogs for the blind (Cheakalos 2004) or ‘strengths-based’ or ‘restorative’ activities with ‘worthy causes’ including repair of wheelchairs, and community regeneration schemes (Burnett and Maruna 2006).

Practices which transform the relationship between the prisoner and carceral environments continue to sit at the top of the agenda for geographers carrying out research on spaces of imprisonment.  However, in recent years, ‘non-human’ things have been the focus of these transforming practices.  In one of the earliest geographical interactions with the prison space, Valentine and Longstaff (1998) recognised the importance of food in shaping prison perceptions and interactions with space.  Lenny Baer (2005) recently conducted a study of how empty toiletry bottles became ornaments to display in prison cells, and contributed to a unique network of value and exchange.  However, in their recent AREA paper, Katrina Brown and Rachel Dilley (2012) reiterate current scholarship within the discipline which focuses upon how knowledges count in human/nonhuman relations.  Animals in prison environments have received little attention, despite tales of both legitimate (and often illegal) adopted pets.  Clearly, in the seemingly closed-off space of the prison, interactions with non-human agents highlight themselves as a new avenue for the carceral geographer.  

 References

Baer, L D 2005 Visual imprints on the prison landscape: A study on the decorations in prison cells. Tijdschrift Voor Economische En Sociale Geografie 96 209-217.

Brown, K & Dilley, R 2012 Ways of knowing for ‘response-ability’ in more-than-human encounters: the role of anticipatory knowledges in outdoor access with dogs. Area 44 37-45.

Burnett, R & Maruna, S 2006 The kindness of prisoners. Criminology and Criminal Justice 6 83-106.

Cheakalos, C 2004 New leash on life – In an innovative program, prison inmates find that raising puppies for the blind makes a difference. Smithsonian 35 62-68.

Valentine, G & Longstaff, B 1998 Doing porridge – Food and social relations in a male prison. Journal of Material Culture 3 131-152.

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