Certain offenders with addictions or mental illnesses across the U.S. increasingly find themselves in treatment programs and on community supervision instead of behind bars. And of those incarcerated, they're sent to sparkling new prison units and jails where they can focus their attention on dealing with drug and alcohol abuse and finding work once they're released.
While criminal justice reform advocates have been lobbying for this kind of rehabilitation and compassion for decades, courts and jailers are presently offering it only to U.S. military veterans.
"We've given focus and attention on change," said Neil Richardson, a chaplain at the Muscogee County Jail in west Georgia, where a new dorm dedicated to housing military veterans opened in April 2012. "We are backing them up inside and outside the facility."
That sort of special treatment and encouragement is being extended to veteran-offenders in Virginia, where a barracks-style dorm opened in November at the medium-security Indian Creek Correctional Center in southern Chesapeake. A special veterans unit was also launched at the State Correctional Institution (SCI) in Pittsburgh, Pa. in January 2013.
And momentum is building for a veterans' court–similar to diversion courts for drug offenders and the mentally ill–in Toledo, Ohio, following the creation of veterans' courts that already operate in cities across Ohio, Michigan and other states.
According to a Toledo Blade editorial that endorsed such a diversion program for veterans, who now make up about 10% of the U.S. jail and prison population, the court 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. The court then requires them to get counseling through the Veterans Administration, deal with their addiction problems, and get tested regularly for drugs and alcohol.
In Columbus, Ga., Sheriff John Darr said that he created the new 16-man dorm at the Muscogee County Jail to break the cycle of recidivism for veterans, by bringing together "specialist services" that include a veterans' court and a community group that helps veterans in prison who have mental illnesses, including post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression."
"It's really unique," Darr said. "What we're bringing together is a lot of resources."
The veterans' wing at Indian Creek reminds Raymond Riddick–one of about 2,000 prisoners in Virginia who identify themselves as veterans–of U.S. Navy boot camp.
"Only, the beds weren't bolted to the floor," said Riddick, who's serving time for a string of car thefts.
The prisoners at the Indian Creek veterans' wing 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 prison jobs there 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 offenders on the outside.
At SCI-Pittsburgh, the prison's B Block houses up to 250 veteran-offenders, who get treatment for PTSD and drug and alcohol problems, and are taught how to turn their 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."
Hopefully, these same programs will eventually extend to the entire prison population, who know that addiction and mental-health issues-as well as hopes for a second chance–aren't exclusive to veterans.
Sources: Toledo Blade, www.hamptonroads.com, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, abcnews.go.com, www.businessinsider.com, www.guardian.co.uk
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