Updated: September 24, 2012 6:25AM
Eric Stahl has had his cat Will for almost a year.
The black cat with a white patch on its neck was abused before Stahl got it and squirmed some while Stahl held it in his lap. Still, Stahl said Will has come a long way since the two have been together.
So, perhaps, has Stahl.
“This is the first cat I’ve ever had in my life,” Stahl said.
What’s remarkable about their relationship is that it’s taking place within the confines of Indiana State Prison in Michigan City. Stahl, a Hobart native, has been an offender at the maximum-security facility for almost 20 years.
He’s one of 75 offenders allowed the privilege of cat ownership. To qualify for a cat, offenders must have a record of good conduct, have a job, and have the money in their accounts to pay for food, having the animal spayed or neutered, routine vaccinations, and medical care.
Offenders in four cell houses, including Death Row, may have cats, though those on Death Row do not have jobs, said Pamela James, the prison’s spokeswoman.
The program benefits both the offenders and the cats, which the prison gets from Fried’s Cat Shelter, a no-kill facility in Michigan City.
“Offenders who have cats are very well behaved. The cats are like family members,” said James, adding some offenders have been in the prison for so long, they have lost contact with their families. “This is an opportunity for them to get unconditional love.”
Having a cat gives the offenders something to love that’s theirs and teaches responsibility, she added.
“It softens the guys. There’s no doubt about that,” Stahl said, adding he and Will — short for Willow, because the cat’s previous owner mistakenly thought it was female — have been through some of the same things.
The program started sometime in the late 1970s, when the prison administration wanted a policy to address the stray cats that had come to call the facility home.
Indiana State Prison is the only facility within the state system that allows offenders to have cats, as far as James knows, though Westville Correctional Facility has a dog rehabilitation and adoption program called Mixed-Up Mutts.
Christopher Randall got his first cat in prison, too. The Chicago native, who grew up with dogs, said he wanted to get a musical keyboard for his cell but prison officials wouldn’t let him.
“So I decided to get a cat,” he said as Pimp, named for the nickname of Randall’s late uncle, stood on his shoulder.
Pimp, Will’s older brother, is black with white patches on his chest and feet. Like other cats in the prison, Pimp must remain on a leash and be tied up in Randall’s cell.
Cats are able to slip through the bars and explore the hall outside the cells while on their leads. Pimp and another cat in I Cell House, where Stahl and Randall live, like to sit in cardboard boxes in the hall near the radiator.
“I love animals, first of all. They show unconditional love,” Randall said. “When you feel like there’s no love on the outside, you feel love in here. And they have personality.”
If an offender can no longer care for his cat, James said the cat could go to the offender’s family, return to Fried’s Cat Shelter, or go back in a lottery to be adopted by another offender, because there is a waiting list.
Joseph Brower decided to give his tortoise-shell-colored cat Trina to his family in Grant County after he had had the cat for two years.
“I got her because I wanted something to take care of, something I could give my love to as a companion, but as time went on, I thought she’d be better off at my parents’ house, because there are certain restrictions here that we have to abide by,” he said.
That includes the leash rule and living in a sometimes-unpredictable environment, said Brower, who sent Trina home on Jan. 9. Though Brower did everything he could for Trina, the cat didn’t seem happy in prison.
“I believe a cat’s nature in itself is they like to run and explore, whereas in here, they can’t really do that,” he said. “They don’t have the opportunity to be as a cat.”