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Caring for a Prison's Cats

by Peter Pae, Washington Post Staff Writer


Anthony Lyles will be paroled next month after serving eight years in Lorton prison, and he will leave behind the buddies he has made while behind bars: Roscoe, Nina, GoHog, Shamika. His cats.

Lyles has fed and cared for the pets for the last three years, and he sees no prospective foster father among his fellow inmates.

"I haven't found anyone good enough for my cats," said Lyles, 37, who went to prison for dealing cocaine. He isn't the only inmate who's worried these days. More than 500 cats roam the sprawling 3,200-acre Lorton Correctional Complex in southeastern Fairfax County, where they have been adopted by convicted murderers, robbers, rapists and other prisoners, who give them names, feed them daily and even allow some to sleep on their bunks.

Lorton, part of the D.C. Department of Corrections, is one of the few prisons in the country to allow pets, and therein lies the problem. The facility is to close by the end of 2001, and officials already have started transferring its inmates elsewhere.

But no one quite knows what to do with all the cats.

"We're running out of time," said Penny Moore, a Woodbridge resident who has led a volunteer effort to find homes for the cats of Lorton, in cooperation with the Feline Foundation of Greater Washington and the Northern Virginia chapter of the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals.

About 80 District inmates are being transferred out of Lorton each week, and they leave behind as many as a dozen cats. Some are adopted by other inmates, but many of those prisoners soon find themselves on the transfer list.

"When these prisoners leave, many of [the cats] will have to stay," Moore said. "My goal is to get them all out and get them adopted."

No one knows for sure when the cats first appeared at the 83-year-old prison, although some guards who have worked there 30 years say cats were at Lorton long before they came along. One thing is certain: The prison has no rodent problems.

"I haven't seen a rat yet," said Wayne Wilkins, a recreation specialist who has been at Lorton since 1971 and has helped coordinate a program to care for the cats.

Most of the cats sleep in tunnels and gutters within the prison, although some are allowed to stay in dorms in the lower-security parts of the Lorton complex. They all spend some time outdoors; litter boxes are not allowed.

The cats tend to be categorized by inmates as "walk cats," those that don't respond to anyone; "yard cats," those that stay outdoors and are cared for collectively; and "dorm cats," which have collars and belong to particular inmates.

"These guys [cats] keep me going," said Frank Scherer, known as the Cat Man of Lorton, who is serving a life sentence for a 1979 murder conviction. Scherer, a paraplegic who gets around in a wheelchair, has been feeding the yard cats each day for eight years.

"Every time I feed them, I learn about responsibility and understand compassion," he said, petting an orange cat named Mama seated on his lap. "It has completely changed me. Instead of taking lives, I'm trying to save lives."

Scherer, 49, began his morning rounds by first whistling for his pet cat, Al, who quickly ran over to his motorized wheelchair. With Al on board, Scherer drove around to various stops where cats congregate to feed.

"Roadrunner, come on, boy," Scherer beckoned as he took scoops of dry cat food from the bucket on his lap and placed them on the ground. Two dozen cats quickly began trailing him. "Come on, Shakey. What, you're not hungry?"

There are no studies to prove that prisoners who develop compassion for animals will transfer those feelings to people, but prison officials say caring for the cats certainly can't hurt their rehabilitation efforts.

"We believe it provides some kind of reform for some of the most hardened inmates," said Bill Meeks, a prison spokesman. "We hope it is carried out to the streets, where these inmates who didn't much care about others will show some compassion for others."

At Lorton's maximum-security prison, Michael Crigger, who was convicted of second-degree murder in 1984, feeds and cares for 28 cats that roam the hallways and yards but are not allowed in the inmates' cells.

A calico cat named Tramp has figured out a way to sneak into the cells. "I see tears in their eyes when they get to touch and pet the cat," said Crigger, 44. "It's the only companionship they have."

Many inmates care deeply for the cats, and when one gets sick it becomes a worrisome affair for the entire cellblock. When Moore recently visited the Youth Center, a medium-security prison at Lorton, she was confronted by about a dozen inmates.

"Indo is sick," said one, breathlessly.

"We don't know what to do with him," said another.

"He's sluggish and he doesn't want to play," said a third as he stepped forward from the crowd, his burly, tattooed arms holding a tiny gray-and-white tabby. "Can you make him feel better?" inmate Toussaint Kirkland asked softly.

For Lyles, his four cats have been almost like "kin" to him. A question of whether any Lorton cats are abused by inmates prompts a quick, terse response. "There would be repercussions," he said.

For Moore, the closing of Lorton poses overwhelming challenges. Since 1993, when she learned that many surplus strays were being euthanized, Moore and other volunteers have been trying to keep the cat population in check by having the animals neutered and spayed. And the Feline Foundation and the SPCA have provided food and money for Moore's "Lorton Project."

But in the past year, Moore has focused on trying to get the pets out permanently, finding farm owners to adopt some as barn cats and placing others in private homes.

A few weeks ago, the last of the 1,200 inmates from the Occoquan facility, the third Lorton prison to close, were transferred out, leaving behind about 20 cats. The number would have been much higher except that Moore had managed to place 50 to 60 cats beforehand. Last week, she returned to trap the rest, and she's intent on finding new homes for them, too.


Editor's note:

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