Nationwide, veterans accounted for 8 percent of the prison population, but in the past several years, officials have begun to acknowledged that incarcerated veterans have special needs.
For instance, the military veterans in the Albany County jail are treated to a special cellblock where they can work through problems they often share, such as substance use and post-traumatic stress disorder. Veteran inmates are more likely to have reported mental health issues, particularly PTSD, reveals a snapshot of the prison population by the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
According to 31-year-old Navy veteran James Gibson, who was serving a 60-day criminal contempt sentence, “Everybody who’s been in here has been in the service. So we can all relate to at least that.”
Thanks to help from the nonprofit group Soldier On, “veteran pods” are being instituted into state and county lockups as the criminal justice system focuses on helping troubled former service members instead of punishing them. There are at least 86 prisons and jails with designated veterans’ housing, according to federal government statistics. Many of the programs were started in the last five years, the Associated Press reported on Wednesday.
Some of the half-dozen veterans’ dorms in Florida prisons feature daily flag raisings or monthly formations. Others, like Albany, tend to avoid military trappings. The San Francisco Sheriff’s Department offers yoga and meditation and works with a local veterans treatment court. But their common aim is to create an esprit de corps and a “safe space” to help veterans deal with their issues and reintegrate into society.
Inmates and officials say the Albany pod is cleaner and less troublesome than other tiers. For instance, when a guard was attacked in 2016 by an inmate from another unit, the pod inmates ran from across the common area to the guard’s aid.
“We send all these young men and women overseas and when they come back, a lot of them with PTSD, domestic violence, drug issues,” said Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple, who started the veterans pod more than three years ago. “And I just felt we could have treated them better or done something for them.”
Apple noted that 6 percent of the roughly 331 participating veterans in Albany over the years have returned to jail. This is much better than the typical jail recidivism rates of more than 40 percent.
Albany’s program also provides post-release services, such as housing, through Soldier On. So, when the veterans are released from jail, they have a place to go.
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