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California opens a dedicated prison yard for veterans, hoping camaraderie helps rehabilitate them

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California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation
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More than 100 incarcerated veterans attend a ribbon-cutting ceremony in May 2021 for one of the nation's largest prison units dedicated exclusively to former service members. The veterans hub in Soledad, California is designed to provide unique rehabilitation programs and benefits to veterans in prison.

California incarcerates nearly 7,000 military veterans scattered throughout 34 different prisons. Now, the state is planning to house them together on what would be the nation's largest veterans prison yard.

California has opened what state leaders said will be the nation's largest prison yard just for incarcerated veterans.

The designated yard, which staff and veterans are calling the "hub," is at the Correctional Training Facility, a prison snuggled in the foothills town of Soledad on California’s central coast.

More than a dozen states have separate prison dorms for military veterans. But the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation said this will be the largest veterans hub in the nation - eventually housing up to 1,200 incarcerated veterans.

"Our goal with the veterans facility is to gather incarcerated veterans into one place,” Warden Craig Koenig said at the hub's ribbon cutting ceremony in May. "This will develop the camaraderie and the shared identity that you already see here."

The idea for a veterans hub had been brewing for years. Ron Self, a formerly incarcerated Marine Corps veteran, was serving a life sentence for attempted murder at San Quentin State prison. At a self-help group meeting at the prison in 2014, he shared with fellow inmates a traumatic experience from combat.

"I shared probably my most significant traumatic event that culminated in me putting a bullet in one of my men's head who just got blown up with an RPG," Self recalled.

The response, he said, was crickets.

“People just didn't know how to respond," Self said. "They were all civilians. They've had other huge, big traumas, but nobody knew how to deal with that.”

That experience and others similar to it led Self to conclude there needed to be a yard just for veterans, where their specific traumas and issues could be addressed. While still behind bars, Self founded an organization called "Veterans Healing Veterans from the Inside Out." When he was paroled in 2017, he began lobbying state officials for a veterans hub.

At the ceremony in May, Self cut the ribbon.

The yard in Soledad has 145 incarcerated veterans already living together in a housing unit. Together with staff, they hope to set the tone for the yard ahead of the arrival of more veterans.

“We do raise the flag and lower it every evening, play taps and reveille in the morning and at night inside our housing unit." said staff member Matt Dyer. There's also a mural on the yard depicting the famous World War II scene of Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima.

Dyer - who works on the yard - isn’t a veteran, but has an American flag tattooed across his forearm. He said the mural and the daily rituals are designed to restore a sense of patriotism and duty.

“Whether they’re inmates or not, they’re veterans,” he said.

A mural depicting the famous scene of Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima is painted on one of the walls of the veterans hub. Inmates at the hub follow a number of military traditions, including playing reveille and taps in the morning and at night.
Lucy Copp
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American Homefront
A mural depicting the famous scene of Marines raising the flag at Iwo Jima is painted on one of the walls of the veterans hub. Inmates at the hub follow a number of military traditions, including playing reveille and taps in the morning and at night.

Still, the purpose of the hub is much bigger than just restoring military tradition. 

"It wasn’t so much we want to see murals and we want to see flag poles. That's just the surface level," said Mark Wade, an incarcerated veteran at the hub and the Veteran Liaison, responsible for communicating between his peers and prison officials. "We were trying to get deeper than that and really prepare people to get out of here."

Part of preparing people to get out is speeding up the process of connecting incarcerated veterans to their VA benefits. For instance, veterans seeking disability benefits need what’s called a compensation exam from a VA service provider. But undergoing the exam is challenging from prison, where veterans can wait years to be seen by providers who have caseloads in the thousands.

"With a centralized location now, the VA doesn't have to travel to 34 prisons," Wade said. "They could come to one." 

As the logistics of the new veterans yard are finalized, Wade said he and his incarcerated peers are working together to make the yard as successful as possible, which for Wade means leaving a healed and transformed person and never coming back.

There's little data on whether housing incarcerated veterans together makes it less likely they'll end up back in prison after they're released. But California Corrections officials say they'll begin tracking that. And Wade said that will be the true test of whether the veterans hub is a success. 

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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