Cats Filled the Prison. Then the Inmates Fell in Love.

Some say they were first brought in to take out the rats. Others contend they wandered in on their own.

What everyone can agree on — including those who have lived or worked at Chile’s largest prison the longest — is that the cats were here first.

For decades, they have walked along the prison’s high walls, sunbathed on the metal roof and skittered between cells crowded with 10 men each. To prison officials, they were a peculiarity of sorts, and mostly ignored. The cats kept multiplying into the hundreds.

Then prison officials realized something else: The feline residents were not only good for the rat problem. They were also good for the inmates.

“They’re our companions,” said Carlos Nuñez, a balding prisoner showing off a 2-year-old tabby he named Feita, or Ugly, from behind prison bars. While caring for multiple cats during his 14-year sentence for home burglary, he said he discovered their special essence, compared with, say, a cellmate or even a dog.

A cat joining a card game with inmates in a lower-security section of the prison.Credit…Cristobal Olivares for The New York Times

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