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“Companion animals” is an alien term to those who have been in prison for decades. Animals are not allowed, and loneliness is the standard companion. Which is why my heart melted when I heard the little meow. Like a gift from the universe, wild kittens had inhabited one corner of the prison yard.

They were striped like mini tigers and walked with the same ferocity, sway and cuteness. There were 10 cats in all, and three were pregnant.

I’ve been to 12 prisons since 1999, and cats are a rarity. A few prisons have dog training programs but never for cats.

Our cats have survived by eating gophers and mice, and when the kitchen doors open in the corner where they hang out, they come running. I am one of the kitchen workers, and we bring them food. The kittens are the cutest, and when we feed them, we have to spread the food around to prevent bullying. Pregnant cats get double. That's the rule.

Because they are wild, we can’t pet them. My friend disagrees with this decision that the cats have made. He thinks that since we feed them, they should let us pet them. I tell him not to take it personally.

There are 10 of us locked in the kitchen, where we prepare trays for 700 people to be fed in their cells. Through small windows, we can see the tiny lions licking their paws and slapping each other under the fence where one is trying to relax. It's ironic that the cats are free but we humans are caged.

On the way back from pill call, when we go to receive our medications, we pass the cats. If we want to sneak them treats, it means the bologna saved from lunch has to survive the officers’ pat-down frisk. Some bologna might even find its way into somebody's sock.

Up ahead, in the constant stream of returning prisoners, I can see inmates producing their treats to a chorus of meows. I can see them in the night-time stadium lights, and I can see the inmates' faces light up like children’s. The shower of meows seems to validate our existence, letting us know we are fulfilling some purpose in this world where many of us are forgotten and sent to die.

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

Jessie Milo is a writer, artist and poet incarcerated in California. He is a volunteer for and an advocate for mental health.