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Prisons Experiment With Programs To Help Incarcerated Veterans


There are a handful of states that actually house incarcerated military veterans together. The prison system in Washington state is one of them. Corrections officials say it's an easier way to manage these inmates and prepare them for life back on the outside. Patricia Murphy of member station KUOW visited a prison in Aberdeen, Wash., and sent this report.

PATRICIA MURPHY, BYLINE: Every morning, a color guard raises the flags at Stafford Creek Corrections Center. The men who do the honors are inmates from a special housing pod for veterans at the prison. The formation moves along the concertina wire, past a guard shack, to the flagpoles.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Heads in detail. Post your color.

MURPHY: The ceremony is punctuated by the occasional jeer from other inmates as they're moved between cell blocks. Later, inside the vet pod, inmate Michael Kent says that happens a lot.

MICHAEL KENT: It's almost like a, what right do you think you have to touch the flag? You broke the law. You let people down.

MURPHY: Kent is a former Army Ranger serving time for robbery. He and nearly a hundred other inmates move about freely in the cell block that houses just vets. The walls are painted with armed forces insignia and flags.

TERA MCELRAVY: We want to recapture that positive stuff that they learned in the military and then have them apply it to civilian life.

MURPHY: That's correctional unit supervisor Tera McElravy. She says this is still a prison, but the men's shared military experience helps to foster a sense of responsibility.

KENT: When I came to the pod, people greeted me. I was like, whoa, wait a minute (laughter). That's not - something that's different here.

MURPHY: Inmate Michael Kent says that's a big change from other parts of the prison.

KENT: There wasn't all the politics. There wasn't all the other garbage to get involved in. There was - I mean, you just - you came in here, and there were a whole bunch of guys that were just - all they were trying to do was try to help each other out.

MURPHY: At Kent's feet is a chocolate-colored lab he's training to be a service dog for a wounded veteran.

KENT: Snickers, down, down.

MURPHY: It's one of a few community service programs inmates can participate in.

KENT: There's a lot of things that - meaningful things that people can get involved in around here. You just have to concentrate on making your time count.

MURPHY: Grouping inmates together also makes it easier for the state to help inmates sign up for VA benefits, services and job training. But skeptics question whether these programs in several states, including Pennsylvania, Florida and Colorado, will really prepare vets for when they're back in the community.

WILLIAM BROWN: In many cases, many of them are more comfortable in prison than they were on the outside.

MURPHY: William Brown is a criminal justice professor at Western Oregon University. He's also a veteran. Brown says it makes sense that housing veterans together works well in prison. They're already used to a formal, structured way of living. He says the real test of the program's success will happen when the inmates are released, when being a veteran with a criminal record isn't the norm.

BROWN: One of the largest group of critics of veterans caught up in criminal justice are veterans themselves on the outside because they look at these veterans as though you're an embarrassment to us.

MURPHY: Michael Kent says that's something he and others in his unit know they'll need to fight against once they're released.

KENT: We had to go against the stigma. We had to prove to them that, hey, you know what? That may be true, but that doesn't mean that we can't find it within ourselves to redeem that, to reach back.

MURPHY: So far eight offenders have been released from the veterans' pods in Washington. One is back in prison. McElravy, the unit's supervisor, says the program is a work in progress. But so far, the results have been good enough. The state plans to expand it to accommodate more of the approximately 1,500 Washington state inmates who once served in the armed forces. For NPR News, I'm Patricia Murphy in Seattle. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.