My Take

Here’s an idea to turn hardened criminals into model prisoners: let them keep cats

Managers of a prison on Lantau Island have stopped inmates from looking after stray cats, but they could be missing a golden chance to turn the bad guys good and cut the conflict and stress behind bars

PUBLISHED : Friday, 21 July, 2017, 12:52am
UPDATED : Friday, 21 July, 2017, 12:52am

Talk about prison inmates and their guards, and images of violence and brutality come to mind. But it turns out that many of them at the Tong Fuk Correctional Institution, a medium-security facility on Lantau Island, have a soft heart. They have been feeding and providing shelter to stray cats that have wandered into the prison facility from the hillsides over the years. At their peak, there were reportedly 70 to 80 cats at the site. Sadly, it’s now down to 20 to 30, and they will be all thrown back into the hills after this month.

Senior officers, it seems, had tolerated the cats’ presence – until now. Citing a reported dispute involving cats between inmates, the new management has started a no-animal policy.

Some inmates have saved their own food to feed the cats, and other officers have even adopted a few cats at home because they didn’t think they could survive in the hills. One officer has tipped off the media, apparently alarmed at the uncaring way the new senior officials have ordered the cats’ eviction.

However, a spokeswoman for the Correctional Services Department (CSD) said animal welfare groups have been alerted to help release the cats and take care of others.

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You can’t fault the department; prisons are not for keeping pets, not usually anyway. But I wonder if the CSD honchos are missing a golden opportunity for an experiment in rehabilitation and reform.

Many scientific studies worldwide have repeatedly confirmed the benefits of having cats around as pets. Keeping a cat helps you cope better with stressful and painful situations and makes you feel less lonely. Cat owners are less likely to have heart attacks or strokes, compared with those who are pet-free. You are less likely to feel demoralised and dejected if you are emotionally attached to a cat.

Such benefits are obvious in a high-stress prison environment. Anything that can de-stress prisoners and their guards is surely a good thing. So there might have been a dispute over a cat, but what officers didn’t see is all the potential confrontations that might have been avoided in a less stressful environment.

Given it’s a medium-security prison, you are unlikely to have psychos and sadists. Animal welfare groups can help desex the cats, and devise programmes for inmates to take care of them. It may yet make softies out of hardened criminals.