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Can kittens make everything better? Prisons inmates say yes.

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Darin Oswald/Idaho Statesman/AP

(Read caption) Inmates at the Idaho State Correctional Institution hold the hard-to-place shelter dogs they are training for eight weeks before the dogs are again up for adoption. Dogs learn basic commands, but also an array of tricks, including “high-fives,” playing dead, even praying.

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An animal shelter near Seattle is testing the theory that kittens can improve any situation with a rehabilitation program that sends cats to prison for socialization. 

The Kitsap Humane Society sent 10 cats in need of human interaction to the Mission Creek Corrections Center for Women in Washington, where the inmates give them human attention until they are ready for adoption, Drew Mikkelsen wrote for USA Today. 

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"It's a win-win for everybody involved," inmate Cydney Berthel told USA Today. "We're rehabilitating the lives of these little kittens and rehabilitating our lives too."

The inmates involved said they view it as a way to make amends and an opportunity to learn how to care for another living thing. Security is still a concern, so only inmates who have six infraction-free months behind them, who were not convicted of violent crimes against animals, children, or vulnerable adults can participate. 

The program, called the "Pawsitive Prison Program," is not the only one to combine prisons and animals. A program called TAILS, which stands for "teaching animals and inmates life skills," based in Jacksonville, Fla., sends shelter dogs into two prison facilities for an eight-week training program.

Six to 10 dogs are sent to live in two different Florida facilities, Jen Deane from Pit Sisters tells The Christian Science Monitor. Both the inmates and the dogs are vetted for violent behavior.

Ms. Deane says TAILS is fairly new, but she has used "best practices" tips from similar programs. Each dog is assigned two trainers, and the canine sleeps beside the inmate's bunk at night. During the day, the inmates train the dogs using a nationally recognized program from the Association of Professional Dog Trainers, and the trainers receive weekly instruction from Pit Sisters.

"We're not just going in there teaching them how to train dogs," Ms. Deane says. "Yes, that's important, but we want to create animal advocates."

Meanwhile, Pit Sisters markets the dogs. The majority of the current canine class has a new, adoptive family waiting, so once the training ends so the family can pick up the dog at "graduation." And even if it doesn't find a home, Deane says, the dog has received training and time away from overcrowded shelters.

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She describes grateful letters she has received from inmates who say they learned impulse control, patience, problem-solving, and even people skills while working with dogs. "Graduated" inmate trainers can contact Pit Sisters for networking help after their release, Deane says.

The success of such programs lies in bringing together two stigmatized populations, Virginia Chavez-Nelson wrote for She Knows:

Untrainable, unlovable and just plain bad – words used to classify the masses of homeless pets who end up behind bars in cages each year. Ironically, the same can be said for the masses of prisoners who have earned permanent residence in the big house ... Many inmates find themselves capable of acquiring skills in pet-related fields that can later assist them in getting re-acquainted to a world without bars.

Deane would like to see prison programs for dogs and cats expanded, noting that abandoned puppies and kittens need bottle-feeding every two hours.

"All inmates have is time," she says. "The possibilities with the prison system are endless."


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