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Experimental Housing for Vets Changes Lives, Reduces Violence

August 15, 2015

By Andrew Garber,

DOC Communications

(Will Mader, Digital Communications Specialist)

ABERDEEN – Seven men stumbled out of their bunks at dawn, donned uniforms and white gloves, then lined up and marched past barbed-wire fences toward a distant set of flag poles.

The men unfurled an American flag against a backdrop of concrete prison housing and saluted, all under the watchful eye of nearby correctional officers.

“Detail halt!” the detail’s leader called out when they reach the site. “Abooout face. Ensign detail, hoist the colors.”

These men are inmates, serving time at the Stafford Creek Corrections Center for crimes ranging from robbery to murder. They’re also all veterans of the U.S. military.

They live in a prison unit at Stafford Creek that houses around 130 veterans as part of a special program launched by the Washington Department of Corrections about two years ago. Inmates must be free of serious infractions for six months and not have a dishonorable discharge to live there.

Washington’s prison system is one of only a handful nationally that houses veterans together. Stafford Creek led the way in this state. Coyote Ridge has followed with a similar program.

Department surveys show that 8.7 percent of the inmates incarcerated in Washington state prisons are veterans. That’s more than 1,400 inmates. An estimated 62 percent of them received an honorable discharge, and 38 percent received various types of other discharges.

The idea behind housing veteran inmates together is to see if their common experiences can create a sense of comradery, and, in turn, reduce conflict, and motivate inmates to turn around their lives.

The experiment at Stafford Creek appears to be paying off.

“In here, everybody basically has a goal to better themselves,” said Michael Kent, an inmate serving time for robbery. “You can feel that around you, and when everybody else has it, the whole thing moves forward.”

Head on a swivel

Kent, a 43-year-old Army veteran who served in the 10th Mountain Division, is in prison for bank robbery and is projected for release in 2017. After moving through several different facilities, he landed at the veterans unit early last year.

The veterans housing area looks like every other prison cell block at Stafford Creek, with the exception of patriotic murals painted on the walls honoring the different military branches. The biggest difference is the inmates themselves and their common background.

“I came in with my head on a swivel like everyplace else,” said Kent, who moved to the veterans pod after being in the general prison population at the Clallam Bay Corrections Center.

“I came in looking at, who are the guys? Who am I going to hang with? Where is it going to be safe? All of the politics,” he said. “There was none of that here.

“From the moment I walked in the door, a guy named Bob came up and met me and said ‘what branch are you from? Ok, here are the Army guys.’ I met those guys and met everybody else. For a few weeks I still had my head on a swivel and then said, ‘Wait a minute, this is different.’ ”

Kent later got involved with the color guard and helped write the SOP (standard operating procedure) for how to conduct the flag ceremony. He pulled parts from the Army, the Marines and the Title 4 U.S. Code.

“We don’t want somebody in here throwing a flag over their shoulder and pinning it to a pole. We handle it with the utmost respect,” he said.

He also began training dogs as part of the Brigadoon program at the prison, which prepares shelter animals to be service dogs for veterans and others with physical, developmental, and behavioral health disabilities.

Kent said the Redemption Project at the veterans pod had the biggest impact on him. It’s an inmate-led program that helps inmates address the problems that landed them in prison.

“The Redemption Project is about changing culture in prison and changing each one of the guys,” said Kent, who is now a Redemption facilitator. “I went through a drastic change, a very emotional change.”

Common backgrounds

Richard Smith, who is serving time for multiple convictions including assault, rape and unlawful possession of a weapon, said he’s had a similar experience at the veterans’ pod that’s allowed him to focus on turning his life around.

“You don’t have to worry about the next man’s action interfering or affecting your program,” said Smith, who is 33 and projected for release in 2032.

“This place brings you to people like yourself, all military. Some of the guys I can associate with because they’ve been where I’ve been,” he said. “It helps to talk to somebody who’s been where you’ve been.”

Tera McElravy, who’s worked at DOC for 15 years and overseen the veterans pod since it started, said the difference from other housing units is like night and day.

“It’s just been a great experience. We’ve seen some positive things. There are very few violent infractions. Almost none. Any of the infractions our guys do get is really minor stuff that can be easily resolved. No drugs, no violence, none of the big stuff,” she said.

Because the inmates have common backgrounds, the veterans pod has been able to create a sense of community where they’re motivated to do the right thing, McElravy said. “They’ve started approaching each other with care and concern to resolve conflict and say, ‘Hey man, that’s not what we do here,” she said.

“They are in a great place to remain infraction free and not get messed up in what we call prison politics,” she said. “They are really able to get involved in those positive programs and live as well as they can in this environment.”

Because they all served in the military, DOC is able to work with state and federal Veterans Affairs agencies to provide benefits to the inmates not available to the general prison population, including counseling and education, and services aimed to ease transition back into society after their release.

Kent, who is nearing release, will soon move to a DOC camp to help prepare him for reentering society.

Living in the veterans pod changed him, he said. “My problem was I thought selfishly for years,” he said. “I always put myself first. When I went through Redemption, it was a self-evaluation. When I went through the evaluation I started to see the things I had to change within myself. It hammered home.”