YACOLT — A team of South Korean college students traveled to Clark County last week to study a Larch Corrections Center program that pairs prison inmates with cats, with the idea that their country’s juvenile reformatories might benefit from a similar program.
It’s a mission that many in Korea are watching closely. The four students — Woo Jeong Kim, Yu Ree Ko, Hyung Min Kim and Hyun Jae Ryu — were among 30 teams chosen out of 4,000 teams that applied for the 21st LG Global Challenger, a program sponsored by Korean company LG Electronics Inc.
Every year, teams of university students submit proposals for an idea to research overseas and bring back to Korea, with a goal of making the world a better place. The teams selected for expeditions prepare 50-page reports detailing the findings of their two-week trips, which are fully funded by LG. After reviewing the reports, the company chooses a team for the grand prize, which includes money, LG products, internships and possibly a job offer.
The students who visited Clark County, all fluent in English, are classmates at Seoul’s prestigious Yonsei University, which is the equivalent of Yale in the United States. Their proposal, called the Buddy Plan, would match homeless dogs and cats with youth offenders behind bars. Such a program is necessary, they said, because youth crime has been rising in Korea since 2008, and the rate at which the young criminals re-offend is more than 40 percent. The reformatories’ current rehabilitation programs “are out of focus” and don’t do much to foster psychological stability in the prisoners, Ko said.
Many youth offenders have never experienced proper human bonds, the students said.
“They’re not given hope and love from their family. Their family environments are quite harsh,” Ko said Thursday. “We think things with animals, dogs and cats, would be more effective. … We think it’s quite different from other programs. We think it will be something special.”
An “animal-assisted program” was tried once before in Korea in 2006 with six inmates at the Chun-An Youth Prison. Although the results were good, the program quickly died because of a lack of funds, help from specialists and community awareness, the students said.
The students, who had conducted online research in advance, arrived in the Pacific Northwest with many questions. Would a prison environment be stressful for the animals? Would the prisoners abuse them? Would the program be expensive? Who would be willing to coordinate such a program?
Last week, they visited the Humane Society for Southwest Washington in Vancouver, the West Columbia Gorge Humane Society in Washougal and MacLaren Youth Correctional Facility in Woodburn, Ore., where inmates care for dogs. This week, they’re in New York to learn about the Puppies Behind Bars program.
Thursday, they spent several hours studying the cat adoption program at Larch Corrections Center, an all-male minimum-security prison in Yacolt that houses up to 480 inmates. Selected inmates care for cats from the West Columbia Gorge Humane Society in a special wing of the prison. The cats often arrive emotionally damaged and scared, but after months of love and attention from inmates, they become adoptable pets. So far, more than 50 cats have been adopted from Larch.
Inmates apply to participate in the cat program, which includes an interview and writing an essay. They can’t have any violent crimes toward humans or animals on their record, they must be free of major infractions for at least six months, and need to be at the prison for at least one year after the time they receive a cat. Each of the 10 cats in the program lives in a 10-by-12-foot room with two inmates, who share responsibility for the cat. Caring for the cats is a paid job at the prison, where inmates earn 35 cents to $1 an hour. It’s a choice position, and there’s a waiting list.
On Thursday, about 15 inmates gathered in an activity room with walls bearing two vibrant cat murals painted by an inmate. Dressed in khaki pants and collared camp shirts, several men cradled and stroked the cats in their arms, looking like proud fathers. Volunteer Caroline Reiswig, who coordinates the Humane Society’s end of things while Larch counselor Monique Camacho handles the prison side, introduced the Korean students.
Reiswig, 67, asked the inmates to read the progress reports they’d written about their cats. One by one, they shared their insights.
“He doesn’t like being held much, but he tolerates it.”
“She’s a very good hunter. She’s killed every fly we’ve had in our room.”
“She likes to explore at night.”
“She likes to sit in the window and watch birds.”
“She hates having her tail touched.”
“He’s an independent cat.”
“We’ve started to understand each other over time, and now we love each other.”
The Korean students, wearing matching red polo shirts, asked the inmates how the program changed them.
“It makes you feel human again,” inmate Mark Lee said.
Inmate Roy Nehl said, “It makes you where you can be gentle and nice. You don’t have to wear the convict shield or whatever.”
Some inmates haven’t even seen a cat in 10 or 20 years, inmate Harold Bain said. Being able to touch one “gives you a sense of society,” he said.
Inmate Larry Swan said he was always a dog guy.
“Now that I’m in the program, I’d protect that cat with my life,” he said.
Prisoners become used to taking care of their own interests, Camacho said. But this program forces them to look after something else and coordinate with their fellow inmates to take care of the cats. The cats keep them more connected, grounded and settled, and the men become less self-centered, she said.
Some inmates said the program provides them a way to give back to society and make them feel good about themselves again.
“I think what you guys are doing is amazing,” Ko told the men.
Bringing it home
Nearly 10,000 youths are incarcerated in one prison and 10 reformatories in South Korea, which has a population of 50 million. In the capital city of Seoul, there is one large animal shelter. Other animal shelters in the country are in poor condition and suffer from a lack of volunteers. Puppy mills abound, and stray animals are a huge problem, the students said. Shelter dogs are euthanized in 10 days if they’re not adopted.
Unlike in the United States, where many regard their dogs and cats as family members, pets have a lower status in Korea, and cats rank below dogs. (Many Koreans are suspicious of cats, the students said.) All pets are seen as expendable.
The common view is, “I don’t like it, I throw it out,” Ko said.
Their trip to Clark County taught them that it’s possible to launch an animal-inmate program at minimal cost, the students said. They also learned the value of having enthusiastic volunteers to keep the program going. Their challenge would be to stimulate similar enthusiasm in Korea, but perhaps with the help of social media, volunteers could be recruited, they said.
At the reformatories they visited in Korea as part of their project, the students were told, “it’s not needed, it’s not wanted, it’s too much work,” Ko said.
“They said, ‘Do as much as you can in America, and then let us know,’ ” she said.
When they return home, they will.