An innovative prison program is giving incarcerated men something to look forward to: spending time with adorable shelter cats to help them get adopted.
The Feline and Offenders Rehabilitation With Affection, Reformation, and Dedication (F.O.R.W.A.R.D.) program at Pendleton Correctional Facility in Pendleton, Indiana was launched in 2015 by a (since-retired) facility employee and animal advocate who recognized a need to help overcrowded pet shelters.
Hard to place kittens and cats—special needs kitties, community cats, or long-time shelter residents—from the nonprofit Animal Protection League of Indiana come to stay in F.O.R.W.A.R.D.’s cat sanctuary. There, they learn to interact with people, and incarcerated individuals learn to care for them.
“Something to Care For”
Anthony LaRussa had never had a pet cat when he started volunteering with F.O.R.W.A.R.D. as a caretaker in 2018. Now he loves cats—and the program.
“Before I was a part of the F.O.R.W.A.R.D. program, when I got my time, I was actually really depressed,” he told Rover. “When I got the opportunity to be a part of the F.O.R.W.A.R.D. program, it brought me out of that depression and gave me something to care for, love for.”
Every day at 7 a.m., he and the other caretakers head to the F.O.R.W.A.R.D. sanctuary, where they clean litter boxes, brush the cats, clean the walls, and trade out food and water. Sometimes they give their feline friends a bath, and they always give them love. Caretakers spend 6-7 hours a day caring for the cats.
A Symbiotic Relationship
“Each day when we walk through that door, they’re automatically looking at that door, waiting for us to come in,” LaRussa said. “These cats depend on us, and we depend on them as well. It’s given us something to look forward to every day and it gives us a purpose in life for the time that we’re here.”
One green-eyed cat named Clover grew attached to LaRussa. She always waited for him by the front door, purring in greeting. He’d pet her while she perched on a cat tree, and he’d feed her little bits of wet food. He took such a liking to her that his family filled out adoption paperwork on his behalf.
Now she’s part of the family, enjoying time with his wife and mother.
“When I call home, I’m actually able to have them put me on speakerphone and I can hear her purring. She’ll look for my voice,” he said. “So it’s pretty cool.”
An Emerging Dedication
LaRussa is also the handler for a rescue a Pointer mix named Chance who works as a facility dog at the maximum-security prison by offering stress relief to staff and incarcerated men. He brings Chance to visit the cats in the F.O.R.W.A.R.D. sanctuary to help the kitties get used to being around dogs in case they’re adopted into a home with other pets. (Of course, it’s good for Chance to learn to co-exist with cats, too.)
“You can definitely see the difference [in the cats] from the very first time ‘til now,” he said. “It’s a big, big change. I’m really excited to be able to have the opportunity to do that.”
One caretaker is so dedicated to helping cats get adopted that he writes first-person bios of the cats to help give them a voice.
LaRussa is so dedicated to helping cats get adopted that he writes first-person bios of adoptable cats in the F.O.R.W.A.R.D. cat sanctuary. He and some of the other caretakers were joking around by giving the cats voices, and then wondered what the cats would say if they were posting on Facebook.
“I had some spare time and wrote down a bio for every cat that we had in the sanctuary and kind of gave them a voice,” he said. “Hopefully it helps get them adopted.”
Three years ago, Cassidy Vandine, a corrections officer at Pendleton Correctional Facility, adopted a cat named Hartford from the F.O.R.W.A.R.D. program. She felt Hartford’s playful personality would be a good match for her young daughter—and she was right.
Vandine said the first time she visited the F.O.R.W.A.R.D. cat sanctuary on her lunch break, she was amazed to see the interactions between the men and the cats.
“You have the incarcerated individuals who are here and they look so tough,” she told Rover. “Then you see them rolling around on the floor with a little three-pound cat. It’s just a sight to see.”
Some of us might never leave and some of us have an out date. So for the time being, it gives us something to look forward to.
A Win-Win for Cats and Caretakers
Vandine said the reaction locally to the F.O.R.W.A.R.D. program is positive, particularly since animal shelters are so full right now. Each cat in F.O.R.W.A.R.D. frees up space at Animal Protection League of Indiana to bring in another one.
“It gives all of them a second chance while giving our incarcerated individuals a second chance as well,” she said.
They look so tough…then you see them rolling around on the floor with a little three-pound cat.
About 60 cats and kittens have come through the F.O.R.W.A.R.D. program, according to Chloe Wargny, an administrative assistant at Pendleton Correctional Facility who oversees F.O.R.W.A.R.D. At one point, there were 33 cats in residence.
Anyone can apply to adopt a kitten or cat from the F.O.R.W.A.R.D program through the Animal Protection League of Indiana. “We’ve had quite a few get adopted,” Wargny told Rover.
Some cats are harder to adopt, she said, and are likely to remain permanent sanctuary residents. “They’re misfits, so not everybody wants one. But we love them here.”
Recognition and Praise
The F.O.R.W.A.R.D. program recently received national attention when the nonprofit American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA) named it the 2022 Cat Advocate of the Year. Wargny was one of the F.O.R.W.A.R.D. representatives who accepted the award on October 12 at the ASPCA Humane Awards luncheon in New York City.
Jess Lanzetta, director of cause partnerships and events at the ASPCA, said the nonprofit takes a long time selecting honorees each year. The key element they look for is the positive impact a cat, individual, or organization has on the community, as well as cats.
“What we like about F.O.R.W.A.R.D. was that they represented a really novel approach toward leveraging the human-animal bond,” she told Rover. “It’s a program that’s extremely beneficial to both the cats and the humans that are involved.”
Lanzetta hopes the award helps shine a light on the admirable work of F.O.R.W.A.R.D. caretakers and administrators, and inspires others to adopt cats in their communities.
For his part, F.O.R.W.A.R.D.’s LaRussa hopes other correctional facilities implement similar programs to benefit cats, local shelters, communities, and incarcerated individuals.
“Everything I’ve learned about a cat or caring for a cat came from being incarcerated, and I’m super happy that I was able to have that opportunity,” he said. “It gives meaning and purpose in life, and it allows people like myself to give back, to care for something other than yourself. It teaches you that you’re not the only one in the world. Other people or other animals need help, and if you can give them the help, they’re definitely going to appreciate it at the end of the day.”