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How cats can become man’s best friend in prison

Inmates of a jail in Barcelona can leave the center to take care of more than 200 felines

Cats living in Quatre Camins jail.
Cats living in Quatre Camins jail.

Francisco gets up every morning and heads to the courtyard. The first thing he does in his daily routine is to feed his feline housemates. Looking at the horizon he sees barbed-wire fences. He lives in Quatre Camins prison, located 40 kilometers from Barcelona. This penitentiary is pioneering the use of cats as part of social reintegration. In an environment that may not sound very welcoming, a glaring of 70 cats has found happiness. The structure of the jail allows them to escape through the fences, and the project even allows some of the inmates to spend a few hours a week outside the jail to take care of cat colonies from nearby towns.

“People approach us as if we were normal people, we are not seen as prisoners,” explains one inmate

Every Thursday a group of four inmates, escorted by a social worker, leave the center to feed different groups of abandoned or wild cats living in towns near the jail. In some cases the prisoners have built wood houses in order to give shelter to more than 200 animals that live in bushy areas, waste grounds or abandoned lots. “I thought cats could benefit our prisoners and that they would make their life better, a kind of mutually beneficial cooperation,” explains Sara Díaz, founder of the Gats La Roca (Cats La Roca) project and a social worker at Quatre Camins.

"Those cats followed us everywhere and were living in a deplorable situation", continues Díaz, who promoted the initiative working hand in hand with La Roca Del Vallès City Hall. Prisoners that can opt to take part in this project must be in an advanced stage of their sentence, and benefit from Spanish Prison Regulation 100.2 article, which says that inmates can spend some time outside. It is difficult to be chosen because to get penitentiary benefits the prisoners must have completed a specific therapy course related to the crime they were imprisoned for. “We have to go through a lot of administrative formalities to get them out to collaborate,” explains Díaz.

Inmates like the project because they can go outside. Moreover, Francisco highlights other reasons:  “They give us the opportunity to collaborate in society, to offer a service and this makes us feel useful.” “People approach us as if we were normal people, we are not seen as prisoners,” explains Oscar, another inmate.

Quatre Camins prisoners take care of two type of cats: abandoned domestic felines and stray cats. The abandonment of cats who used to be pets is a death sentence for them, as they do not know how to find food and they do not have instinct to survive. “We put docile cats up for adoption, but we use to find street cats,” says Sara Díaz.

elpais.cat in English

From November 2016, the Catalan edition of EL PAÍS, Elpais.cat, has been publishing a selection of news stories in English.

The texts are prepared by journalism students at the Pompeu Fabra University (UPF), who adapt content from Catalan current affairs, adding extra information and explanation to these stories so that they can be understood in a global context.

Inmates feed cats and catch females to have them spayed. That is the only measure they can resort to in order to slow down the growth of a colony. The reason they focus on neutering females is budgetary. This veterinary intervention and other medical procedures have a cost. Gats La Roca receives a subsidy from the Catalan government health department. But it is insufficient, according to the promoters of the project. For this reason, they have found other ways to finance their activities, such as selling calendars or handicraft made by inmates in street markets.

“When we go to a market we all wear the same t-shirts, so people do not know who are the inmates and who are not,” says Díaz. For the volunteers, one of the best things about the project is the chance to get prisoners close to society once more. This project makes their self-esteem grow, it improves their sensitivity and generates positive feelings. The fact prisoners spend a good time outside jail and feel some kind of connection with cats sees reoffending decrease, because they do not want to lose the chance to take part in the project.