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A bright green caterpillar sits across a tree branch.
Photo by Erda Estremera on Unsplash

Prisons are meant to hold humans, but a surprising array of animals end up behind bars as well.

In a handful of prisons, therapy programs provide opportunities for incarcerated people to train dogs or foster kittens. And men and women inside also turn to less conventional critters for companionship. A number of PJP contributors have written about the crickets, caterpillars, mice and birds that have made temporary homes — and befriended caring humans — inside correctional facilities.

Of course, not all animals are welcome — in one story we share below, Anthony Wayne Williams writes about the health concerns caused by pigeons and their relentless droppings. But overall, the presence of furry, scaly, slimy and feathered friends in prison provide a balm for, and a distraction from, the extreme isolation and loneliness that so many incarcerated people feel.

In the writings collected here, PJP contributors help expand our notion of life inside and the humanity of the men and women who reside there. These stories remind us that even the brutality of prison cannot squash the human need to care for other beings.

A Polaroid photo of a dog and vintage photo of a hillside lay on top of a map of Missouri

My Dog Kokomo, My Only Friend in the Worldby David “Razor” Babb: “On cold mornings, Kokomo would be hunkered down in his little, red doghouse. He’d be in there until the bus dropped me off in the late afternoon. By then he was ready to get out of that cage, ready to welcome me home.”

A bright green caterpillar sits across a tree branch.

Squishington, My Magnificent Caterpillar Friend, Reminded Me of Lifeby Jennifer Kszepka: “I hoped he would be as happy as he made me. I watched him ceaselessly and marveled at his magnificent existence. I wondered if anyone loved me the way I loved him. Each time I held him or felt his tiny steps upon my flesh, I was reminded of humanity and life.”

My Late Night Visitorby Jessica Garza: “The mouse began to make the late night visits a regular occurrence, and I looked forward to them. Many nights we’d stay up late together. I’d read a book, draw or write, while she’d busy herself scampering around my cell.”

An adorable golden colored service dog.

The Prison Service Dog Program That Helped Me Feel Humanby Eric Finley: “In a South Florida prison, dogs have given purpose to a group of men, many of whom are serving life sentences.”

A blue lizard becomes a quarantine companion for an incarcerated writer.

My Quarantine Friendby Jennifer Lacy: “I named him Fender / cause he looked like a mini-guitar / I fed him and kept him warm / Then we got locked down for COVID-19”

Pigeons make an unsanitary mess at one California prison

Jail Birds Dirty Up the Jointby Anthony Wayne Williams: “Upon entering the chow hall, the first thing one notices is the pigeons. Pigeons have declared their nesting home in San Quentin’s chow hall. We must pay close attention to where we sit because we could find bird droppings on the seat and table where we are preparing to eat.”

A program at a Washington prison brings in kittens to be fostered by the incarcerated men living there.

When My Cellie was a Kittenby Jeffrey McKee: “Tiger also thought it was funny to leap into my underwear while I was on the toilet. I, however, was not amused.”

A small gray mouse sits on the palm of an open hand.

What A Dying Mouse Taught Me About the Death Penalty,” also by McKee: “After watching the rodent struggle to survive, I wondered: Was it more humane to end the mouse’s life, when there was no doubt that the mouse would eventually die? Or was it better to allow the mouse those few moments of life, even if they were spent suffering?”

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.

PJP uses this byline for our Collections features and other roundups of PJP stories, as well as As Told To stories written by PJP staff. It is intended to signal the institution’s collective editorial voice.