James R. White, a Marine Corps veteran in a blue uniform, saluted crisply as the honor guard marched around the courtyard, stopped and marched again.
But there were no weapons in sight here. No polished shoes. No gleaming caps. The 85 men standing at attention wore prison garb. When the ceremony was over, they ambled back to their wing of Complex 1, a housing area set aside for military veterans serving time at Sumter Correctional Institution, a maximum-security prison in rural central Florida.
Florida is one of a handful of states that are rethinking their treatment of incarcerated veterans in the hopes of easing their transition back to society and then keeping them out of prison for good. In August, the state created a program that provides separate dorms in five prisons for honorably discharged military veterans who have no more than three years left on their sentences and who volunteer for it. California and Illinois have similar programs, all designed to address the needs of imprisoned veterans better.
As I mentioned last month, the statistics regarding vets in prison are grim: 1 in 10 inmates (160,000) in U.S. prisons are veterans. These programs, designed specifically for veterans who have served, instill some of the same discipline and values of the military on a more permanent basis.
Every morning the men wake up and attend formation, as they did in the service. There are flag-raising and retiring ceremonies, and an honor guard of seven men. Each man’s bunk displays a card with his photo, branch of service and years served. Beds and dorms have to be shipshape. If the men would like, they can even iron their clothes.
By housing the men together, the state has an easier time in providing services, a major concern among veterans’ advocates who say most veterans released from prison know little or nothing about the benefits available to them. Six months before their release, the inmates meet with an official from the Department of Veterans Affairs to get information and help with applications. They also receive counseling for post-traumatic stress disorder, if needed, and classes on how to prepare for jobs and for the mental and emotional hurdles they are expected to face in civilian life.
The men’s ties to the military foster the kind of camaraderie that rarely exists outside the dorm. It is not perfect, but even on the worst days, it is civil, which is why everybody is careful with the rules.
Though most are Army veterans, there is plenty of ribbing about which branch of the military is best. A Marine is a Marine, after all, and not likely to keep quiet about it. But mostly the men share information and experiences. The fact that many of the officers who watch over the men are military veterans too contributes to the esprit de corps.
Andre Lewis, 43, who spent 16 years in the Marine Corps, said other veterans programs felt like a waste of time. They were fleeting, offering no cohesion. Here, he said, the services and programs are ingrained in their days.
The skeptic in me, of course, would question why we have so many veterans incarcerated to begin with, and whether emphasizing discipline and treatment while incarcerated puts the emphasis in the wrong place (i.e. how do we keep veterans from ending up behind bars?). It's a lot like improving mental health care in prisons and jails: doesn't that just encourage its use? And is that a good thing?
But overall, I have to applaud California and Illinois' efforts (and grudgingly, Florida). If these quasi-military programs can get vets the psychological and VA benefits they need to return to society and end the cycle of recidivism, then so be it. It may be somewhat too little and way too late, but it's better than nothing.