Last week, as people across the nation came together to honor those who selflessly served our country, a unique group of veterans assembled in Haynesville, men who once waved the banners of freedom but are now incarcerated.
However, as this same group of inmates turned down their beds last week, they were confident in the knowledge that by banding together, they could become better citizens upon their release.
That assurance comes only though a new and unique program unveiled last week at the Haynesville Correctional Center. Aptly named V.E.T.S., or Veterans Expected to Transition Successfully, the recently debuted program is one of less than a handful in the nation that segregates veteran inmates to help them “regain their self-respect, remember the honor and re-emphasize the character they once had” when they were wearing a very different uniform.
“I salute you. You are all seated before me today as inmates, but also as individuals that have served our country,” Harold Clarke, director of the Virginia Department of Corrections, told inmates during an official opening ceremony on Nov. 7.
“Life is a culmination of the decisions that we make,” Clarke said. “You’ve made good ones and bad ones, like those which landed you here. But nonetheless, you have performed a service to our country that we salute you for.”
Started this July, the program only accepts veterans who have not been dishonorably discharged, meet security level requirements, are inmates in good standing with less than two years to serve and who volunteer for the program.
Since its inception, anger management classes have been introduced, a program was initiated that allows veterans to teach each other life skills, and support groups, including the Wounded Warrior program, have come to educate the inmates on current veterans’ issues.
According to officials at the center of V.E.T.S., the program’s goal is to reduce recidivism by encouraging pride and facilitating a smooth transition to civilian life.
“Don’t ever let anyone give you the impression that you are not deserving of our thanks,” Clarke said just before the ribbon cutting ceremony. “We can always make amends and decisions that will get us on the right track.”
It is a sentiment that Navy Veteran and Corrections Re-Entry Treatment Officer Jarees Commock takes to heart.
“This program gives me the opportunity to do as much as I can for the guys in my dorm,” Commock said. “Better the men that are incarcerated now so that they can be better citizens when they get out.”
The Rappahannock High School graduate and assistant Raiders football coach said that he would strive to improve the success rate of those released from the new dorm.
“I hope one day that I lose my job because all of you will be gone,” he said to the inmates. “Prepare yourself, learn all that you can. Your biggest challenge will happen when you walk out that door. How will you choose then? Labor to make the right decision.”
Eric Andrews, a regional director for Wounded Warriors, said that he was impressed with the facility and its goals.
“This is all about values, integrity, accountability and character,” Andrews said. “I applaud this installation and community because those words mean a lot that these vets can relate to.”
Commock added that by bringing the men together as a community, he hopes that they can rediscover the values they once held dear before committing the crimes that landed them in jail.
“They are really coming together almost as a family,” he said. “With the programs we are offering, like anger management, helping the men understand their benefits and a slew of different classes, we can help an offender re-enter society and become a productive person.”
And for three of those inmates in the program, the results are already tangible.
Christopher Boyd joined U.S. Marine Reserves in 1998 at age 18.
The nephew of a marine, Boyd chose to go into the military to gain discipline and better himself.
Serving in Iraq from 2004 to 2005 in Boyd, who has two small children, assisted troops with supplies and provided security for convoys on several missions, including sweeping land-mine fields.
“I never thought I’d be in a combat situation, but being over there and getting involved with their first elections and helping the Iraqis, I felt more proud and gained a lot more knowledge than I thought possible,” he said, adding that a bad decision landed him incarcerated in 2009 on a malicious wounding charge.
“Being surrounded by fellow vets is helpful because we all know how to treat each other and the correctional officers show us respect,” Boyd said. “I am also learning from a lot of the older vets. Some of their combat stories are amazing.”
He added that the administration at the correctional center is “doing everything possible” to ensure that those in the program make a successful reentry to society.
“I think every vet should be required to do this because we are all learning,” he said.
Fellow inmate Brad Pitts agreed, adding that the facility was offering resources that were not offered to him after leaving the militarily.
“This is a twisted irony, going from protecting freedom to not having any,” said Pitts, an Army veteran who enrolled in 1981, serving three years active and then another three on reserve.
“I was 18 when I joined, just out of high school, and I remembered how proud my dad was of me,” Pitts said. “Being in the army took me to places I never thought I’d see.”
At 5’3” and 113 pounds, the most difficult part of enlistment for Pitts was basic training, where his small statue made him an easy target for drill sergeants.
“I got a lot thrown my way, but I am proud to be part of the 4th Infantry Division,” Pitts said. “This is the same group that stormed Normandy and captured Saddam Hussein. I am proud and blessed to have been a part o something so unique.”
However, after being discharged, Pitts engaged in a series of crimes, from drug and property possession to a host of other violations, which landed him in prison since 1990.
He has just 14 months left to serve.
“I found myself in a place where I was making bad decisions and choices that I am not proud of,” Pitts said, adding that he sincerely believes the new program will help him re-enter society and not return to the prison system.
“Here, in this program, we are given direction and guidance,” Pitts said. “All these guys are really passionate about helping us take what is being offered, apply it to our lives and return to our communities as productive citizens, never to reenter the system.”
For J. Terrel George, returning to jail is not an option.
“This program is laying down a foundation so that we never come back,” George said.
The con of the Command Sergeant of the 82nd Airborne, George grew up in the military, trotting across the globe from base to base. In 1985, fresh out of high school he enlisted, spending 13 years in the U.S. Navy where he served as an aircraft director and in S&R.
“My parents were divorced then and I was the oldest of four children. I wanted to help my mom support my family,” George said. I ended up going to Desert Storm and was injured during search and rescue.”
George came back home, where he became curator of the Navy Museum and was left the Navy on an honorable medical discharge.
However, life soon took a bad turn for the man who was used to structure and discipline, ending in his incarceration in 2008 on George termed as a love for getting money any way he could, both legally and illegally.
With just five months left and a wife and two children at home, George is now looking to the future, and had gotten his barber’s license while incarcerated.
“We have outside help coming in, veterans representatives that help us, officials making sure that when we step out we have a DMV Identification or license and officials helping us understand how to pay back our fines,” George said. “This helps deprogram us so that we know what we have to do when we get out.”
George added that being surrounded by veterans has renewed his sense of pride and given him a new perspective on his own failings and accomplishments.
“Most people just look at us and see our crime, they need to look at us as individuals,” George said. “I feel that if the military branches added this reentry program before we got out, a lot of us might not be here.”
Boyd, Pitts and George were unanimous in their praise for the center’s staff, specifically citing the selfless and hard work done by Unit Manager Anton Daniels, Commock and Counselor Marvin Tomlin.
“They go above and beyond,” Pitts said. “The most important thing is that we are utilizing our remaining time wisely and are being as responsible as we can be. We are taking responsibility for our lives.”
The veterans’ dorm currently holds 84 beds and is at capacity. Officials hope to expand that to 610 as funding allows.
Virginia currently has the 4th lowest rate for recidivism in the country, with over 90 percent of inmates returning home after incarceration.
Officials at the jail hope that this new program improves those statistics and the lives of the men that they are helping.
“We are just trying to do transition with healing, Tomlin said. “Most of them have a lot of pain. This program helps them move beyond that. We are trying to help these people re-enter society so that then they walk out of the door they have resources and do not come back.”
For more information on the program, contact the Haynesville Correctional Center at 804-333-3577.