BY DOMINICK YEZZO, CHAIR
Hope is the simplicity we live by. It is an expectation that something will happen.
When I asked New York City to create a separate Veterans Ward on Rikers Island, the jail’s administration did not know how many veterans it held.
No one knows how many prisoners are veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury. There are more than eight thousand inmates in the jail; most can’t make bail or afford an attorney, so they wait in jail for a preliminary dispositive court date.
If the statistics are a guide, hundreds of war veterans are incarcerated at Rikers Island. They wait for hearings, but six months ago they were on active duty and were mission oriented. Troops who did what they were asked to do, day in, day out. Decorated service men and women who returned home and who committed crimes.
Rikers Island is a mess, but the administrators, especially Deputy Commissioner Nichole Adams, are not. She welcomed my idea and agreed to work with me on developing a Veterans Housing Unit that will identify and serve returning troops who have made bad choices because they suffer from PTSD or TBI. I have also worked with U.S Army Brig. Gen. Laurie Sutton, the New York City Commissioner of Veterans Affairs. Commissioner Sutton is a psychiatrist who understands the trauma of war. She is committed to improving the lives of veterans and their families. We have formed a task force. On January 29 the task force visited the Suffolk County Correctional Facility to study its Veterans Program.
Last November I visited Chapter 195 at the Zephyrhills Correctional Facility and Chapter 1097 at the Avon Park Correctional Facility, both in south central Florida. Raymond Pawlicki, secretary of
the committee and a retired U.S. Army colonel who keeps close contact with both chapters, arranged the visit. We were hosted by VVA members Arthur Lavalley and Chris Schilling.
Incarcerated veterans are generous and protective hosts. They respect us; they honored our visit. I spoke to individuals, many of whom are Vietnam veterans. My presentation was designed to present the direction of our efforts to use Veterans Treatment Courts to reduce the number of veterans entering prison and to use a re-entry program to assist veterans upon release to reduce recidivism.
Veterans incarcerated are a resource. We are shaping a program to allow recently arrested veterans who suffer from PTSD and TBI to mingle with incarcerated veterans.
I asked these veterans to be advisors and mentors. All agreed. We met their chaplain, the assistant warden, the Florida State Council President, and Judge Michael Sconti at his Veterans Treatment Court in Tampa.
The committee is evolving. The inclusion of Pawlicki as secretary is an organizational strength and advancement. We expect to develop training models for committee members to help veterans in the parole process. Pawlicki has convinced me that the committee would do well to partner with the St. Vincent De Paul Society’s re-entry program, which works with recently released inmates.
“Getting Ahead While Getting Out” is a pilot program at the Zephyrhills Correctional Facility. Pawlicki and I believe it is a national model. We hope that we can reduce veteran recidivism through its application.