What began as a simple idea in Middlesex, Mass., is now a trend being adopted quickly by county jails across the country: the creation of separate housing units solely for veterans.
“I felt like this was an opportunity to not only help reduce recidivism in my jail, but at the same time, give some honor and respect back to people who deserve it, regardless if they’ve made mistakes or not,” Pinal County Sheriff Mark Lamb told the Washington Examiner.
Pinal County, just southeast of Phoenix, Ariz., is one of the latest adopters of this practice that’s been quietly building for two years or more.
The origins of the program can be traced back to a small number of county jails, one of them under the direction of Sheriff Peter Koutoujian in Massachusetts. His own family history led him to be interested in veterans assistance programs, but that took a leap forward once he became sheriff.
Through his own research, Koutoujian came across the Veterans Re-entry Search Service program, a service from the Department of Veterans Affairs that helps identify defendants or inmates in correctional facilities.
Koutoujian knew that one of the biggest problems in helping veterans in jail was a matter of simple identification. For several reasons, many who find themselves on the wrong side of the law never identify themselves as veterans. But the depth of this self-reporting phenomenon struck the sheriff when he first used the database.
Using the VRSS program for the first time in the summer of 2013 with a population of about 1,100 inmates, Koutoujian says he knew he had 19 vets.
"When we ran our names through the system, through the VA database, we found out there were another 44 in the system who had never self-identified.”
The sheer number alone began to suggest the idea of housing them together.
“At the same time that some of our administrators were thinking, ‘You know, that’s enough population perhaps we could actually create a unit’ – at the very same time, the veterans that we began working with more closely who were distributed throughout the institution ... also raised the possibility of creating a unit for those who were incarcerated,” Koutoujian explained.
The end product of the “veterans pod” was among the first of the kind in the nation.
The model quickly became successful. Grouping the veterans together facilitated mentoring from local vets, and fast-tracked the paperwork process on many of the services the vets were previously missing out on or would need soon after being turned out. And group therapies for PTSD, psychological counseling, and other group projects also became easier to organize and deliver.
“We bring in the VA to help us get appointments set up for these guys, whether it’s for mental health, or physical issues they’ve got. The VA’s been great about helping us with that as well,” Lamb said.
It also helped improve the behavior of the incarcerated veterans, and other prisons in the neighborhood began sending some of their veterans to the Middlesex jail.
“You’re inside a prison, where there’s a lot of shame, and embarrassment, and in this unit you can feel the self-respect and integrity of this unit,” Koutoujian said. It’s a very different feel than the rest of the places in there. You almost feel a sense of pride in this unit.”
When Middlesex created the separate housing area, the veterans painted the cell block, created a creed and motto, and began even breaking up their prison chores into platoon-like assignments. And they named the unit the Housing Unit for Military Veterans – or HUMV for short – giving it a distinctive military ring. The Middlesex jail also got a waiver from the state to mix veterans who have already been sentenced and those still in pre-trial.
Shortly after Lamb’s unit was created, one veteran spent a week in the unit but then was moved to the state prison.
“Unsolicited, we got a letter from him saying even in that week how much it had impacted his life, and he was very thankful,” Lamb said. “He said he felt like he kind of got that rejuvenation to be able to do things right once he got out of prison and make changes in his life.”
Koutoujian has a similar story. He said as he was walking in a Labor Day parade, someone along the route shouted out “HUMV!” to him, and he immediately ran over to meet the man who had been in the unit.
“The guy looked great, he was squared away, he was healthy-looking,” Koutoujian said.
Koutoujian said many veterans who might have been sentenced to state prison were instead sent to serve out their time in the HUMV unit, based largely on the progress the individuals had made in their time there.
In some cases, the veterans who have left the jail have created their own support networks with “alumni” once back on the outside.
Lamb is quick to credit Koutoujian, and says it’s proof bipartisan work still accomplishes great things.
“It’s kind of funny, because we’re like the ‘Odd Couple,’” Lamb said of the partnership. “He’s a Democrat, liberal from Massachusetts. And I’m a conservative cowboy sheriff out of Arizona. But together as sheriffs, it shows how we work together across this country."
Koutoujian says he remains inspired by what he sees in the HUMV unit.
“They raised a hand and swore an oath. And one of the elements of their motto was ‘Leave no man behind.’ And that was what we attempted to do here. Leave no man behind.”