Veterans Incarcerated and in the Justice System Committee Update September/October 2020

Dominick Yezzo, Veterans Incarcerated and in the Justice System Committee Chair

BY DOMINICK YEZZO, CHAIR

What follows is a letter I sent in July to an inmate at the Warm Springs Correctional Center in Carson City, Nevada:

I receive hundreds of letters from veteran inmates. I am answering yours because your request for guidance demonstrates unselfish leadership and concern for others.

Your letter seeks information regarding the creation of a separate ward for veteran inmates at Warm Springs Correctional. You want to present the benefits of a separate veterans’ ward to the administration for its consideration. Your request demonstrates an ability to speak to the greater good of others, and a conscience of hope. Hope, Mr. Henderson, is the simplicity we all live by. And so my advice to you is as follows:

Please advise Warden Baca that correctional institutions with veterans’ wards have a 90 percent reduction in discipline problems. Veterans who are in a separate veteran ward are dutiful to service of a command. They honor themselves by trading prison attitudes for military structures of leadership and teamwork.

Veterans know intrinsically how to maintain the organization of a unit. Veterans are mission oriented. Veterans understand the chain of command and can apply rules and regulations to their situations. Veteran inmates rise above themselves and search for solutions to the conditions they live in through meaningful work.

At the Grafton Correctional Facility in Ohio there is a longstanding veterans’ ward. The veteran inmates developed the idea of an Officers’ Dining Room for early and late-shift correction officers. The veteran inmates offered coffee and toast for 15 cents.

They earned enough to purchase a hot plate. Then they offered bacon, eggs, and toast for 65 cents. They earned enough to purchase a refrigerator. Then they began to cook hot dogs and hamburgers and prepare sandwiches for the officers and administrators. The unit grew. Some inmates are chefs. Some are food purveyors. Others are dishwashers, waiters, and bookkeepers. Today the ODR donates thousands of dollars to local charities in the name of incarcerated veterans.

At the Union County Correctional Facility outside Jacksonville, Florida, there is a separate ward for veteran inmates. The inmates, two to a cell, have a dog with them in each cell; the men are service dog trainers. On each cell door are painted replicas of the inmates’ medals and other military awards. There are several Bronze Stars, Purple Hearts, Army Commendations, and even a Silver Star painted on doors to remind the inmates who they are and who they can be. There are no discipline problems at Union Correctional.

Please remind Warden Baca that many incarcerated veterans—not all, but many—suffer with PTSD and TBI. These are complicated medical conditions that can cause good men and women returning from war to make bad decisions.

Many veterans return from war with tragic memories of the destruction of people and property. A good military kill may turn out to be a haunting nightmare for years after discharge. For some, killing and destruction in war is a moral issue, like a sin. For others, participating in an ambush in which, for example, two-year-old children were killed becomes a vision every time they look at their own kids. Veterans carry burdens that only other veterans understand. That deeply rooted camaraderie would exist at Warm Springs Correctional Facility if a veterans’ ward is created.

I travel the United States visiting veteran inmates, prison administrators, district attorneys, and judges. I advocate for veterans treatment courts, as well as veterans’ wards in prisons. Veteran inmates are a resource for veterans facing the justice system. PTSD and TBI are conditions we veterans know deep in our guts. The best way to serve a veteran in trouble with wounds of war is to put him or her with another veteran.

I will meet with you and Warden Baca in the near future, but due to the coronavirus, my budget has been cut and I have no travel money.

For now, I commend your inquiry to Warden Baca. You are a smart and unselfish man. Your consideration of others demonstrates broad visions of duty and citizenship. Remember, hope is the simplicity we live by.


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