A group of kittens tumble, climb and pounce in front of one of the inmates at Arohata Upper Prison.

It's not the kind of place you'd expect to see kittens scrambling through the halls but it is part of a kitten-fostering programme in which the female inmates at the prison in Upper Hutt care for a mother cat and her babies until they are ready to be adopted out to families.

The programme was dreamed up by Kitten Inn volunteer Caz Guard.

"It's really good, it's actually a privilege," said the inmate, who watched fondly over the fluffy kittens.

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"I feel quite honoured to be looking after them."

Other women in the unit were envious that she was able to care for the kittens - a role that was awarded only to inmates who had been particularly well behaved.

As she played with them and checked them over, other inmates stood at a nearby window watching.

Deputy prison director Sue Abraham and inmate Tess hold two of the foster kittens at Arohata Upper Prison in Upper Hutt. Photo / Mark Mitchell
Deputy prison director Sue Abraham and inmate Tess hold two of the foster kittens at Arohata Upper Prison in Upper Hutt. Photo / Mark Mitchell

"They're just adorable, I think it just helps with the nurturing," she said.

"It just makes life normal. I'm lucky to be in prison looking after such adorable little kittens."

The woman, who had been in prison for 18 months and was due for release soon, had her own cat at home, which she called every Sunday and talked down the phone to.

"She knows my voice," she said.

A self-proclaimed animal lover, the inmate was delighted at the health of the kittens in her care.

"They just look so much better."

The programme had done her "a world of good", kept her happy, and gave her something to look forward to each day.

She hoped the programme could be expanded to include more women.

"I think it's good for the prisoners, actually, not only me that's looking after them. Every prisoner that comes through here [the visitation area], everybody's looking in. They're always talking about them in the wing."

Caz Guard visited from the Kitten Inn each Wednesday to weigh the kittens and see if they were ready for desexing and rehoming.

The kittens are fostered at Arohata Upper Prison in Upper Hutt. Photo / Mark Mitchell
The kittens are fostered at Arohata Upper Prison in Upper Hutt. Photo / Mark Mitchell

She said the women caring for the kittens had shown "a lot of motivation", not just to play with the kittens but to make sure they were happy and healthy.

Guard fostered kittens herself and thought it would be a great opportunity for the prisoners to get the chance to care for them too.

Deputy prison director Sue Abraham said only inmates who had been on their best behaviour were allowed to work with the animals.

"It teaches them around building relationships, nurturing, caring for somebody . . . it also teaches them how to deal with grief and separation anxiety."

Two women had now told Abraham the kitten fostering programme was the best thing that had happened to them.

"I think what it does is it gives them a sense of normality," she said.

"What we've seen happen is it's allowed them to utilise skills that they've learned in programmes," she said.

One of those programmes was Kowhiritanga, a group therapy course for female prisoners with identified rehabilitation needs.

Kowhiritanga and the kitten fostering complement Corrections' "women's strategy", which involved recognising that women were different and needed to be dealt with in a different way, Abraham said.

The strategy focuses on "trauma-informed" treatment for the inmates.

The inmate tasked with caring for the animals was full of praise for Kowhiritanga.

"Every prisoner should get to do that, doesn't matter what you've done, there's something in it for everyone," she said.

"There's something in it that just makes you understand yourself, your life, a bit better."

Those running the programme also followed up with the women once they were out of prison as part of the programme "maintenance".