According to a report by the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) based on 2004 data, approximately 9.4% of state and federal prisoners are veterans. That is roughly equivalent to the percentage of veterans in the general population, which was 10.4% based on census data from the same time period as the DOJ report.
Veterans courts – similar to drug courts and mental health courts – have been established in around 32 states, primarily in Pennsylvania, Texas, California, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin. The first veterans court was founded in Buffalo, New York in 2008, and provides veterans with treatment, support, training, housing and mentors.
A Toledo Blade editorial endorsing a court diversion program for veterans in Ohio stated the program recognizes “the service of veterans to their country, acknowledges that some carry serious psychological and physical problems, including post-traumatic stress syndrome and alcoholism, and connects them to a range of services they might not have known about.”
Offenders with low-level felonies or misdemeanors, including drug possession, DUI and assault, are typically placed on probation in veterans courts. They are required to get counseling through the Veterans Administration (VA), address their addiction problems, and undergo regular testing for drugs and alcohol.
A national inventory by VA Veterans Justice Programs found there were 168 courts, dockets and tracks designated for veterans charged with crimes as of the end of calendar year 2012.
In addition to veterans courts, a number of prisons and jails nationwide have developed special housing units for prisoners who served in the military.
In Columbus, Georgia, Sheriff John Darr said he created a 16-bed unit for veterans at the Muscogee County Jail to help break the cycle of recidivism. The program provides “specialist services” which include a community group that assists incarcerated veterans who have mental illnesses, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression.
“It’s really unique,” Darr stated. “What we’re bringing together is a lot of resources.” He added, “If [veterans] are not dealing with issues they may have, where are they going to go? They’re going to go to local county jails.”
In Virginia, a barracks-style dorm opened in November 2012 at the medium-security Indian Creek Correctional Center, and a special veterans unit was launched at the State Correctional Institution (SCI) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in January 2013.
The veterans unit at Indian Creek reminds Raymond Riddick – one of about 2,000 Virginia state prisoners who identify themselves as veterans – of U.S. Navy boot camp.
“Only, the beds weren’t bolted to the floor” at the boot camp, he said.
Around 60 prisoners in the veterans unit at Indian Creek are supervised by guards who also have military backgrounds. Logos of every branch of the military are painted above the entrance to the dorm, and the prisoners’ job assignments have military themes: “mess crews” work in the kitchen, a “hazmat team” cleans up spills and an “intel coordinator” works to gather information on veterans programs to assist prisoners after their release.
At SCI-Pittsburgh, the facility’s B Block houses up to 250 veterans who receive treatment for PTSD and drug and alcohol problems, and are taught how to turn their past military experience into employment opportunities.
“Most of them did something prior to service or during service that makes them employable,” said William Woods, a deputy superintendent at SCI-Pittsburgh. “By kind of putting those guys together in a squad or a group, it allows them to share their experiences to help each other out. It looks at building camaraderie based on what they’ve gone through in the service.”
A number of California jails have developed programs for veterans, too. The Veterans Moving Forward unit, which opened on November 1, 2013 at the Vista Detention Facility in San Diego, is painted red, white and blue. Prisoners in the unit take classes related to issues such as PTSD, anger management, parenting and substance abuse. There are incentives for veterans to participate in the program, including extra visits, access to a vending machine and more recreation and TV time.
“This initiative brings the resources to the veterans while they’re in our facilities and then assists in their transition back to the community,” stated San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore.
Nearly 300 prisoners are housed in veterans dorms in the Los Angeles County jail system, while 48 veterans reside in a separate unit at a San Bruno jail operated by the San Francisco Sheriff’s Department.
The Florida Department of Corrections provides veterans units at five facilities that each house around 400 prisoners, where participants are required to adhere to strict rules and take part in flag raising and retiring ceremonies each day. [See: PLN, Dec. 2012, p.14].
In October 2013, a housing unit for veterans opened at the Erie County Holding Center in New York; it is believed to be the first jail unit designated for veterans in that state. “If anybody deserves a second chance, it’s the men who put their lives on the line to defend our nation,” said Sheriff Timothy Howard.
Even Maricopa County, Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is infamous for his abusive treatment and humiliation of prisoners, recently opened a jail unit for around 250 veterans. Announcing the unit on December 3, 2013, Arpaio wrote: “When you made the choice to serve your country in the Armed Forces, you wrote a blank check to all citizens promising to defend their freedom and way of life unconditionally. This program is our way of letting you know that we have not forgotten that commitment despite whatever circumstances in your life have landed you into the custody of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office.”
Such programs are laudable; however, prison and jail officials should consider extending the rehabilitative, treatment and assistance resources offered in veterans units to non-veteran prisoners – many of whom also have substance abuse and mental health problems, and who also could benefit from a second chance. Although incarcerated veterans have served their country they have also committed crimes – just like other prisoners, who are equally deserving of similar programs and opportunities.
Sources: www.guardian.co.uk, www.erie.va.gov, Toledo Blade, www.hamptonroads.com, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, www.abcnews.go.com, www.businessinsider.com, www.pacourts.us, www.mirecc.va.gov, www.ncsc.org, www.economist.com, www.justiceforvets.org, Los Angeles Times, www.countynewscenter.com, www.abc15.com
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