York County Prison testing veterans-only housing unit

David Weissman
York Dispatch
York County Prison began offering a veteran-specific housing unit in early October 2017. (Photo courtesy of Mark Walters)

Deep within the windy halls of York County Prison, past the monotonous lull of beige walls and dark grey doors that lock behind you, a silhouette of a saluting figure stands painted against a recognizable red, white and blue backdrop.

It's the welcome sign to the prison's newly dedicated veterans pod.

Following the lead of the state Department of Corrections, York County prison officials are piloting the Veteran's Housing Unit program, which includes an eight-cell unit currently housing 10 inmates who previously served time in the military.

The voluntary program, which began in early October, allows veterans to live together and participate in veteran-specific peer group workshops intended to promote interpersonal growth, reduce recidivism and support successful community re-entry, according to county spokesman Mark Walters.

Inmates in the program are regularly visited by the county's director of Veterans Affairs, Terry Gendron, who helps them obtain necessary documentation and VA benefits, if they're eligible.

"When I came on board, I quickly recognized that incarcerated veterans are probably our most neglected veterans," said Gendron, who was chosen to head the department in May 2016.

Gendron said a lot of the veteran inmates he's interacted with were unaware they were eligible for benefits, which can include trauma-induced psychiatric aid and job training.

"These are quality-of-life-changing benefits," he said.

Warden Clair Doll said the program is about tailoring treatment plans to individual inmates, and he added that the veteran inmates don't receive any special treatment beyond a few murals on the wall and the opportunity to live together.

"It's the same food, the same housing, the same medical and mental health care available to every other inmate," Doll said.

The murals, which include a portrayal of the iconic picture of military members raising the flag over Iwo Jima during World War II, were painted by a nonveteran inmate with no artistic training, Doll added.

Painted above the veterans' cells is a quote from Illinois Congressman Dan Lipinski: "On the battlefield, the military pledges to leave no soldier behind. As a nation, let it be our pledge that when they return home, we leave no veteran behind."

Veterans Treatment Court: In addition to this new inmate program, the county also  has offered since 2012 the Veterans Treatment Court, which offers veteran-specific pre- and post-conviction options, including PTSD treatment and more consistent court appearances.

Common Pleas Judge Craig T. Trebilcock, an Army colonel who oversees the Veterans Treatment Court, said the county's veteran-specific criminal justice options are not about being patriotic, but rather about understanding why people are committing certain crimes.

"If you don't want someone reoffending, you've got to dig down and find out what's driving that misconduct," Trebilcock said. "It's easy to throw people in jail; it's difficult to change conduct."

More:York County judge seeing real, albeit slow, progress in Afghanistan

He said a lot of veterans he sees getting in trouble with the law are doing so because they're having a hard time integrating into society after coming home from the military culture abroad.

"Veterans think differently, and if we don't treat them accordingly, we'll just end up doing what we did after Vietnam, which was filling up our prisons with vets," he said.

Treblicock lauded the prison's new program because military members tend to be very "tribal-oriented people," he said, and having multiple veterans living together can help reinstitute the sort of "self-correcting disciplinary mechanism" they learned while serving.

"In the military, if someone is not living up to a certain standard or misbehaving, others will tell them to step up," he said.

According to prison policy for the new program, eligibility requirements include two years verified active military service or combat theater service, honorable or general discharge and satisfactory institutional adjustment records — reviewed on a case-by-case basis.

If the pilot program is successful and there'e enough interest, Doll said the prison would consider expanding it to more groups.

— Reach David Weissman at dweissman@yorkdispatch.com or on Twitter at @DispatchDavid.