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A program at a Washington prison brings in kittens to be fostered by the incarcerated men living there.
Photo by Biel Morro on Unsplash

In the spring of 2019, I was living in a mental health unit in a Washington state prison when I made a new friend. The Blue Mountain Humane Society had brought in rescued kittens for prisoners to foster until they could be adopted to a good home. The group provided carriers, toys, food, cat litter and other necessary supplies. Some kittens needed to be bottle-fed, which, I soon learned, is a very intensive process.

I was never much of a cat person. When I was really little, my grandmother had a cat that would hiss and scratch me when we visited. But I get lonely in prison and miss others depending on me. So I figured I would give the program a try and signed up.

I was called to the education building and handed a kitten, carrier, food and litter. No instructions were provided. The kitten had a little velcro coat with a loop on top that clipped onto a leash. For a while he seemed to struggle to get up and move around. I was afraid he was ill. One of the guys said the kitten was just not used to the coat and would be OK. 

I brought him back to my cell. I set up the litter box and gave him food and water. I took off his coat and placed him in his carrier, leaving the door ajar, and ignored him for the rest of the day. I knew nothing about cats or their care.

The next morning I saw paw prints in the litter box and on the floor — he had done some exploring while I was asleep. I took a toy mouse on a string and tied it to the front of his carrier, so it dangled in the middle of the entrance. Again I ignored him. After a little bit, he started batting and biting the toy mouse. When he knocked it out of place, I tied it up again. This went on for some time until he got tired and took a nap.

As a writer, I do a lot of typing in my cell. I stack two cardboard boxes and place the typewriter on top in front of my bunk. Together with my made-up bed for a seat, it creates a little office. By the third day, the kitten began venturing out of his carrier while I worked. He walked to the opposite end of my bunk, where there is a gap between the mattress and wall, and tried to climb up. He could not quite make it, so I reached over and gave him a boost. After that, he must have figured I was no threat and began more exploration.

My cell door is on an electric motor, controlled by the booth officer. It slides open like a pocket door. The door is loud when it opens or closes, which naturally spooked the kitten. At first I would place him in his carrier when I knew the door would be opening. We were told to lock the carrier door when we leave — but I hate being locked in a cage, so I just left it open. 

When I came back one day, he was not in his carrier; he was sitting on top of my typewriter. Since he seemed comfortable in that spot, I began placing him there when I left my cell.

One day when I returned to my cell, the kitten was neither in his carrier nor on the typewriter. My cell is only 8 by 12 feet; there are not many places to hide. I began panicking — where could he be? 

It took about 45 minutes of frantic searching to figure out that he was hiding in a little pocket between the wall and mattress, sound asleep. A wedge in my bed, which lifts the mattress some, created a little space near my head. At night the kitten started crawling up there and sleeping against the top of my head like a furry nightcap.

Eventually, I began taking him for walks around my unit. I’d put him in his coat, attach his leash and set off. The other prisoners and guards enjoyed watching me walk the kitten and would pet him when we passed by. I was not going to name the kitten because I did not want to be too attached — I knew I would have to give him up eventually. But he had a bad habit of running up behind people and attacking their calves; he did the same to me while I typed. So I surrendered. He earned the name Tiger and became the unit mascot.

Tiger liked to play fetch. I would set up my wedge against the wall toward the window, where I put a cardboard perch, and throw his mouse up there. He would run, climb up the wedge, attack the mouse, then drop it in front of me to do it again. Sometimes I would throw the mouse down the hole between the mattress and wall and laugh when he dived, fearlessly, into the void. 

Tiger also thought it was funny to leap into my underwear while I was on the toilet. I, however, was not amused.

It did not take long for Tiger to link the opening of the cell door to outside adventure. He tried to escape each time it opened. I used a large piece of cardboard on a hinge to thwart his escape — a baby gate of sorts.

Once a week, the cat group met in the education building. Several hairy, tattooed and barrel-chested men would cut and glue cardboard obstacle courses and hideaway holes for the kittens to socialize. While we worked, we talked about our kittens the same way parents talk about their children.

Kittens are like children in many ways. I set my new $30 pair of earbuds on my bed, and Tiger chewed on the cord. Goodbye earbuds. I also learned kittens sometimes step on their poop before burying it. Tiger tracked his droppings across the floor and onto my bunk, and he was not pleased when I held him in front of the sink washing the excrement out from between his paws. I was not pleased with him tracking poop across my bed, so I considered us even.

After about six weeks with Tiger, I noticed something unusual in his litter box. I told the staff I thought Tiger had worms. They asked if I was sure. 

I said, “Does kitty litter usually crawl around after the kitten uses it?” 

Then they came and took Tiger away. I never got to say goodbye. 

The time I spent with Tiger reminded me of raising my own children. The cute, fun moments. It was stressful at times, and tried my patience, but it was always worth the effort.

Disclaimer: The views in this article are those of the author. Prison Journalism Project has verified the writer’s identity and basic facts such as the names of institutions mentioned.

Jeffrey McKee is a writer incarcerated in Washington.