The Cats of Polsmoor Prison

The Prison that once housed Nelson Mandela now is home to some lucky feral cats


Nestling in the foothills of the picturesque vineyard clad Constantiaberg Mountains in Cape Town, South Africa is Polsmoor Prison. This maximum security facility once housed Nelson Mandela, the country’s most famous political prisoner from the Apartheid era who later became the country’s first black president. Today it houses murderers, rapists, notorious gangsters and a unique feral cat colony that impacts on the lives of those around them.


The story of how these cats came to be there has all the key elements of a good movie; a dramatic a race against time, a hazardous boat ride from a tiny island to the mainland and hurdles of red tape cut by determination and perseverance. And happy ending.


Back in the 1960’s when Nelson Mandela and his anti-apartheid cohorts was taken to Robben Island, a desolate island prison six miles off the coast of Cape Town and very similar in many aspects to Alcatraz, the wardens, bored by their job and plagued by rats that infested the buildings, brought a handful of cats over from the mainland as pets and, at the same time, put them to work taking care of the rats.


In the Eighties, after Mandela had spent 18 years on the island, he was transferred to Polsmoor Maximum Security Prison in Cape Town and the facility on Robben Island was closed with new plans to turn it in a museum and wildlife reserve. The handful of cats that had been living there for the past few decades had multiplied into a feral population of hundreds and suddenly the authorities were after them claiming they were decimating the wildlife on the island. Out went a call to shoot them all.


Enter an animal lover named Rita Brock. When the story hit the headlines, Brock was appalled.


“It really pushed my buttons,” she recalls. “The concept was out of line with the now focus of the island, namely to be a beacon of humanity.” Together Brock and the local SPCA went over to the island to see the situation firsthand and couldn’t find a single cat. There weren’t even any footprints, leaving Brock to believe that perhaps it was already too late.


Finally the SPCA went into negotiations with the prison authorities to get a permit to be allowed to come onto the island and conduct an extensive search with permission to remove every cat they could trap.


They were given a permit for six weeks and immediately went to work. Sadly they only managed to trap 24 and in the end only 15 were healthy enough to be relocated.


But where to take them was the next question.


“Somewhere along the line somebody suggested Polsmoor Prison,” says Brock “mainly because it has large self-sufficient farmlands as part of the facility.

It was agreed. The cats from Robben Island would follow in Mandela’s footsteps and go to Polsmoor Prison.  Their new home would be a barn next to a freshwater dam in some corn fields. Special feeding stations would ensure they would always have food.


However, when Brock visited the prison for the first time to organize the feline relocation, she couldn’t believe her eyes. There were cats everywhere, disappearing into drains, peering out from behind rocks and hiding in the tall grass.  She also couldn’t help noticing lots of sheets hanging out of the prison windows only to learn that many prisoners were letting starving strays in the area come into their cells by climbing up these sheets. They were looking after them and sharing their food with these hapless creatures.


“That’s when I realized that apart from simply releasing the Robben Island cats here and monitoring them permanently, I would also have to take care of all these other feral cats too.”


Brock approached the authorities for permission to introduce a trap neuter and return program and also help supply the inmates with proper cat food and veterinary supplies to assist them with the feral cats they’d adopted. Surprisingly they agreed.


“I will never forget the day we released island cats,” recalls Brock. “It was a moment of triumph but when I saw them rushing off into the bushes, I felt I was loosing my babies. My only thought was please let them be safe.”


Safe they most certainly are. Help has come from a surprising source; the prison wardens themselves and members of their families have taken it upon themselves to assist on a daily basis with the feeding and also keep an eye on them when they patrol the prison grounds as part of their duties.


Subsequently, Brock  has found herself with the added on-going responsibility of acquiring food donations to feed all these cats as well  supplying  prisoners with flea treatments, de-worming pills and products to treat ear mites which are an on-going concern.


With her a smile and gracious determination, Brock fought more red tape to get permission for Cat Fancy to visit the prison and interview  inmates with feline companions.


The day I went to meet Wayne Hutchinson, serving time for child molestation, his beloved cat named Spookies had been missing for several days. When he alerted the warden at our meeting, the kindly officer used his authority to launch a full-scale search in the prison section known as Medium B to locate the missing pet.


“She’s been living with me for a year,” says Hutchinson and she’s totally stolen my heart and changed my life around. I have been going crazy without her. I was abused as a child and she has taught me how to love and learn the errors of my ways.”


When Brock found Hutchinson drawing pictures of cats in his cell, she organized paints and canvases to allow him to work on what was obviously a hidden talent and has even helped him sell his art.


Gregory Henry is serving out the last few months of a murder conviction and brought his beloved tabby named Nibbles to meet me. He was making plans with Brock for his cat to go into foster care when he comes out of prison until he has organized a secure place to live and able to take care of his furry soul mate.


“She really looks out for me. If I am sleeping she will come and nuzzle my neck to make sure I am okay.  She also knows I hate cockroaches and if one comes into my cell she will show me where it is so I can get rid of it. She has taught me what it means to be considerate of others. Who knew I would learn life lessons from a cat.”


Together these men and other cat-loving inmates have worked tirelessly within the prison walls to teach other prisoners about animals and converted many gangsters who previously only saw cats as objects to be abused in gang initiation ceremonies as creatures to love and respect.


While there are many prisons around the world that allow inmates to have dogs teaching them how to look after them and socialize them so that they stand a good chances of being adopted into a loving home, the Polsmoor Prison cats are unique and changing the lives of all those that come into contact with them.


As for Brock, her work is never done. These days, she has a special pass giving her carte blanche to come and go through the prison gates. She’s set up a  free spay and neuter program to help  prison staff  living on the grounds of  Polsmoor  take care of their own pets and is working to reduce the feral population by finding cats loving homes with the help of the non-kill animal rescue group The Emma Animal Rescue Society, (TEARS). The search for food donations and more volunteers is on-going. She does it all with a smile and the satisfaction of knowing that one person can make a difference.

Footnote: Hutchinson was reunited with his cat Spookies several days after this interview. She was found trapped on the roof of the prison.


Side Bar


1. Information about how to send financial donations for the Polsmoor Prison cats can be found by emailing Rita Brock at

TEARS is a registered South African organization: # 2001/026732/08. NPO Reg. No 044-441-NPO


Nelson Mandela spent 27 years behind bars. He was sent to Robben Island in 1964. In 1982 he was transferred to Polsmoor Prison in Cape Town and finally to Victor Verster Prison in Paarl, South Africa from where he was finally released on February 11, 1990.

He was President of South Africa from May 1994 until June 1999.


This article is from CatFancy Magazine

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