Military Vets Find Support in Jail

VISTA – In a calm and orderly pod of San Diego County’s Vista Detention Facility the quiet that is a rarity in county jails is interrupted by an occasional “Ooh-rah,” the solidarity cry of the U.S. Marine Corps. The 32 men incarcerated here, from all branches of service, are part of an experiment in which the special needs of military veterans are addressed to improve their odds of success upon release. Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, traumatic brain injury, depression, anxiety, drug and alcohol issues, flashbacks, nightmares and other war-related emotional afflictions often weigh heavy on military veterans and sometimes are cited as the cause of their legal woes. So in November 2013 the Sheriff’s Department and Veteran’s Administration launched the Veterans Moving Forward Program, a structured and therapeutic jail unit to address veterans’ needs an in a supportive environment. “They volunteered to help our country, now it’s our time to help them,” said Sheriff’s Corporal William Dean Hardy, who volunteered to work with the unit.
Not all detention deputies have bought into the veterans’ program, but Captain Erika Frierson chose her empathetic staff from a long list of staff volunteers. It quickly has become a model that has positively influenced even the neighboring pods housing administratively segregated inmates, who often emulate the behavior they see and have become easier to manage, jail officials say. Veterans attend classes from 6:30 a.m. until 4 p.m. and sometimes later. They must agree to work and study alongside all of their peers, no matter race or nationality. That alone separates it from other jail groups where combative cliques often are formed based on ethnicity and gang affiliation. “Veterans are used to living in a group, and following rules and regulations in a structured environment. They tend to have a higher level of education than our other inmates, know how to work together for a common cause, and there’s a brotherhood that exists. Almost all of them, from Day 1, support each other,” said Commander John Ingrassia. “Something we did not expect was that the other inmates are changing their ways out of respect for the veterans.” As of August 2014, 85 offenders had been a part of the program, 44 have been released and six went back to the general population because they didn’t want to participate in programming. There have been zero disciplinary incidents in the unit. Only three veterans have returned to jail, two for violating terms of their electronic monitoring and the third for a technical probation violation. One went back into an in-patient drug treatment program a few days later. Fifty inmates are on a waiting list, and jail officials are exploring the addition of a second unit.
“I was at a point when I couldn’t take it anymore,” said Kevin, a former Marine, who is participating in the unit. “I have anger problems; I know that. Here we try to be conscious of each others’ problems and understand where each other is coming from. I know there’s a reason I’m here, and I thank San Diego County for this process.” San Diego County is home to Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps Naval Air Station Miramar, the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, the Naval Base Coronado, and Point Loma Navy Base, as well as 250,000 veterans. But other counties are adopting similar programs, including Kern and Riverside. Jail officials looked at several national and state veteran modules, including one in San Francisco, before adapting their own program. Officials also spent time talking with local agencies about in- and out-of-custody services that would be provided to the veterans upon release. “For any county that’s going to do this, you have to have someone from the VA and you need your community partners,” said Christine Brown-Taylor, the sheriff’s department’s reentry services manager. The program relies on 20 community-based organizations and more than 30 volunteers to deliver job mentoring, financial and career planning and other life skills. The offenders also receive substance abuse treatment, cognitive behavioral therapies such as Thinking for a Change and stress management classes, and practice yoga. The group incarcerated in July 2014 ranged in age from 21 to 68. Most were honorably discharged, but nearly a quarter left the military under less than honorable situations. Officials estimate that one-third of the offenders have PTSD, and more than 75 percent have substance abuse issues. “It’s like a beacon of light. When I got here all hope was lost. I was at rock bottom. We served our country with pride and got lost in a rabbit hole. This is an opportunity to finish right. The programs make it impossible for you to fail,” said David, a former Army soldier.
The veterans receive group and individual incentives for good behavior and programming success, including soda machine vouchers, access to art supplies, extra telephone time and visits, more exercise time and a pillow. “My daily plan for my life no longer consists of staying out of jail. That’s how I was living and I know that it’s flawed. Thinking for a Change is such a simple concept, but it’s good,” said another offender who is one of the original 32 men assigned to the unit. “In the past my decisions were made as emotional snap judgments,” said Anthony, a US Navy veteran. “In this module I’m forced to face situations I’m uncomfortable with in a non-hostile environment.” “You can’t change anybody; you can only change yourself,” said Kimbra, who said he has never known his mother sober. “Now my mother is seeing the change in me and she wants to be in a program.”
Jail administrators began talking up the veterans’ pod about six months before it opened to prepare staff for the change. “It’s an ongoing battle to educate staff, but they are starting to see it’s easier to manage this population,” said Commander Ingrassia. Prior to their release, Angela Simoneau, the veterans justice outreach specialist from the VA, helps them sign up for healthcare and other benefits so that their progress can continue. Most go into in-patient and out-patient programs. Others are referred to VA-funded homeless outreach programs such as the Veterans Village of San Diego, which delivers psychological, substance abuse and other services to homeless vets. Each veteran leaves with a reentry plan. Simoneau also helps some apply to upgrade their discharge statuses to help them become eligible for additional housing and other veterans services. The Vista Detention Facility is in the district of Assembly Member Rocky Chavez, a retired Marine Corps Colonel, who is investigating whether the veterans’ program can be expanded statewide. Tom Garcia, his senior field representative, says it’s a part of repaying them for their service. “We have a special obligation to our men and women, young and old, who have served this great country. They have risked their lives in order to maintain a free America, and providing them with steps to positively impact their lives, is a simple, yet resounding way to thank them for their service,” Garcia said. The men know the success rate so far has been good, and many of them indicated they don’t want to be the one to mess it up for their fellow veterans. “We didn’t come here to get out of jail. We’re all going to get out of jail. We came here to stay out of jail,” inmate Kimbra said.