At the Southeast State Correctional Facility, inmates are subjected to head counts several times a day. Not Ziggy, Marmalade, Smokey and Shane, though — they come and go as they please. They're prison cats — but only for now. They are being involuntarily paroled by the new superintendent of Vermont's largest women's prison, to the chagrin of inmates who feed them, pay for their care and cherish them.

"It is not a physical plant that is conducive to a pet program," said Superintendent Anita Carbonell. "I know a lot of the inmates consider them pets, but they aren't really."

Cats have been fixtures at the farm-turned-prison since the 1980s, sleeping in warm garages and nooks and crannies on the 22-building campus and keeping it mouse-free. The number fluctuated as the prison became a dumping ground for unwanted felines and they found their way under fences, into barns and into the hearts of inmates.

Caring for cats "teaches empathy, teaches responsibility, teaches compassion and it's a great educational tool," said Sue Skaskiw, director of Vermont Volunteer Services for Animals Humane Society. "These women have taken on these animals. To take them away is unnecessary and insensitive to their situation."

Inmate Susan Margiotti, 47, says the cats make her feel better.

"When I was depressed or something I'd go out and spend time with them," she told the Valley News, of Lebanon, N.H., in an interview. "I could go outside and yell to the cats and they'd come running to me, just like a dog."

But the cats have caused problems, too.

Inmates have been scratched, and some are allergic to cats or just don't like them. Recently, an inmate used a cigarette lighter to burn the fur off one of them. That cat has since recovered and is now living with a staff member.

"They see the benefits, they see the therapeutic part of the animals, but they don't ever see the cost or they don't ever see what happens when things go wrong," said Correctional Officer Mark McGuire.

Carbonell said the cats are inconsistent with the mission of the facility, which is to help the women shake their addictions, learn to control their tempers and get educations.

About a month ago, the prison started giving away the cats, first making sure they were spayed or neutered and up to date on immunizations. About six have already found homes.

One cat placed with a staff member a few weeks ago disappeared the first time it was let out, McGuire said.

"Some don't realize that these cats are nearly feral and you need to keep them in the house for the first six weeks or so," he said.