Helping Vets in Jail Get a Fresh Start
Once they served their country. Now they’re serving time.
In a Los Angeles County jail dorm, 75 military veterans, like former Army private Robin Arthur, await trial or serve sentences for crimes from drug use to armed robbery.
Arthur, a map printer at Ft. Belvoir, Va., in the early 1980s, sees reminders of his service wherever he turns.
Flags representing all five branches of the U.S. armed forces hang from the ceiling. A mural painted by inmates covers a cinderblock wall with images of war -- paratroopers leaping from planes and a soldier carrying a wounded comrade.
Nearly three years ago, sheriff’s deputies set aside a section on the third floor of Lynwood’s Century Regional Detention Facility for veterans. As many as 96 men can be held in the tiny two-bunk cells that surround a high-ceilinged common room where inmates take classes during the day and watch television and play chess at night.
Sheriff’s officials hope that by rekindling the pride and discipline that veterans learned in the military, inmates will find the resolve to turn their lives around.
“We have a camaraderie,” said Arthur, a 41-year-old clerical worker from South Los Angeles who was convicted last year of receiving stolen property. “The flags -- sometimes you look up at them and it makes you proud of what you once were.”
The special dorm is part of a nationwide push to reach out to an estimated 225,000 veterans locked in prisons or jails, the vast majority of whom committed their crimes after they were honorably discharged.
Efforts to help veterans behind bars are gaining momentum as authorities try to reduce the high rate of homelessness among vets. From Washington state to New York, prisons have set up programs to help veterans find housing and drug abuse counseling once they leave.
The U.S. Department of Labor is funding pilot projects in six states, including California, to teach inmates who are veterans job skills and help them find work after they are released.
Last month, Los Angeles County jails counted 701 veterans among new inmates -- about 5% of all bookings, roughly the same as their representation in the overall county population.
Sheriff’s deputies set up the veterans dorm in response to a directive from Sheriff Lee Baca to rehabilitate offenders rather than just warehouse them. On the same floor of the Lynwood jailhouse, deputies also run units aimed at reforming wife batterers and drug addicts.
Baca was in the Marine Corps reserves from 1964 to 1970, rising to the rank of sergeant while attached to the U.S. Naval Air Station in Los Alamitos, and believes military experience can help criminals turn around.
“The people who go to the military are taught the right things -- about leadership, about sacrifice, about what is important to character,” Baca said. “All the more reason a fall for a vet is a great fall. That’s why I want to get them back on their feet.”
In Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles, inmates are confined to their cells for up to 23 hours a day. But in the veterans dorm, inmates roam freely in the large communal area. And they are offered an intense regimen of counseling and classes.
Merrick Bobb, a special counsel to the Board of Supervisors who monitors jail conditions, backs the special treatment.
“What the Sheriff’s Department is doing for veterans is admirable and should be emulated,” he said, adding that he wished money were available to extend similar services to other inmates.
Killings and other violence involving former soldiers captured headlines in the 1970s and 1980s in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. Some defense attorneys argued that the horrors of combat triggered emotional distress -- post-traumatic stress disorder -- causing some battle-scarred soldiers to act out violently when they returned home.
But the most comprehensive study of incarcerated veterans, published in 2000 by the U.S. Department of Justice’s bureau of justice statistics, found that combat veterans were no more likely to have committed violent crimes than veterans who had not seen fighting.
It concluded that combat veterans were less likely to be repeat offenders.
At the Los Angeles County veterans dorm, several inmates said they turned to crime despite their military experiences, not because of them.
At 20, Raymond Viramontes said, he joined the Marine Corps to escape the lure of crack cocaine and gangs in El Monte.
The Marines assigned him to a prestigious job with a marching platoon in the White House Honor Guard. He recalls with pride President Bill Clinton’s first inauguration in 1993.
“It was exciting being within arm’s distance of Clinton and his family,” said Viramontes, now 32. “I was going to make a life of it.”
He earned promotions to corporal. But his career came to a halt following the death of his 2-year-old son, who lived with a former girlfriend. Viramontes sank into despair, turning to drink and then drugs.
“I just didn’t want to remember,” he said.
After testing positive for cocaine, he said, he was court-martialed and sentenced to three months in a military jail. It was his first run-in with the law. The Marines let him go in 1995 with a bad conduct discharge.
Back home, cocaine and crack cost him a brief marriage. Angry outbursts at a new girlfriend landed him in jail, once for making threats and a second time in October for stalking.
As he walked through a jail reception area, he saw a poster for the veterans dorm. “I was kind of anxious to get over here,” he said, explaining he thought it would do him good “just being around people who one time in their life respected others.”
When he arrived, a smiling inmate welcomed him with a question: “What branch?”
“To be honest with you, I’m afraid to leave,” he said. “I feel content. I know everybody. I know where they have been.”
Sheriff’s officials say they carefully screen inmates for the veterans dorm. Anyone awaiting trial on murder or rape charges or who has a history of violence in jail is disqualified.
Deputies ask inmates if they are veterans while booking them into jail. The answers are verified with the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Initially, some older Latino gang members misinterpreted the question. Veteranos is a term used for senior gang members. Deputies now ask whether inmates ever “served in the U.S. military.”
When they arrive at the dorm, inmates are given a reminder of where they came from. They are ordered to shower and shave, then their hair is cut.
Lt. Terry McCarty, who runs the dorm, then does his drill sergeant routine, lecturing them on the honor the military instilled in them and the respect it earned them.
“We try to bring them back to when they were 18 years old and that someone in their family, their mom, their grandma, still has that photo of them in their uniform,” said McCarty, who served in Thailand and Vietnam while a military police officer in the U.S. Air Force from 1969 to 1973. “We try to stress, ‘Remember the pride when you got that picture. We want to return that pride that you had in yourself.’ ”
On a recent day, inmates played solitaire at three computers.
Blacks, whites and Latinos played chess together -- a rare scene in county jails, where inmates tend to follow a strict code of racial segregation.
In the middle of the dorm, a dozen others watched an early evening sitcom on a big-screen television.
A single guard watched the scene from an open control booth, separated only by strips of red tape on the carpet.
“This is ‘Romper Room,’ this is the ‘New Zoo Review,’ ” said Lorenzo Thompson, a former storekeeper on the Enterprise aircraft carrier. Thompson, serving 180 days for drug possession, said that while previously housed in the Men’s Central Jail in downtown Los Angeles, he could hear inmates fighting in nearby cells.
The dorm is made as comfortable as possible so inmates can concentrate on their rehabilitation, sheriff’s officials said.
Still, inmates said that the safe surroundings draw some more interested in serving an easy sentence than in the programs offered.
“There’s a lot of people here who haven’t decided to stop using alcohol and drugs,” Thompson said.
At the dorm, inmates receive job counseling and learn how to use computers, write resumes and handle job interviews. Other classes teach parenting skills, anger management and how to break drug and alcohol addictions. Classes start about 7:30 a.m. and last until 4:30 p.m. on weekdays.
After their release from jail, veterans are given a toll-free telephone number to call for help. A sheriff’s van is available to pick them up and take them to organizations that provide housing and substance-abuse programs for veterans.
Sheriff’s officials cite the lack of violence in the dorm as proof of the program’s success. McCarty said guards have witnessed only one episode of violence at the dorm -- a scuffle over a slice of cake brought to celebrate Veterans Day. Inmates broke up the fight, he said.
The lack of violence is striking in a jail system that has reported 877 inmate assaults since July.
But jail officials acknowledge that real success depends on keeping inmates from committing new crimes. “We’re only as good as the ones who don’t come back,” said Sgt. Linda Wills.
The department is studying recidivism rates among the program’s graduates and expects to have results in the spring.
Some inmates said they don’t need studies to know the program has worked for them.
At a recent ceremony for graduates from the program, inmates stood one at a time and thanked their jailers and counselors for their encouragement. Some choked back tears as they spoke.
Orvel Smith, a former Army sergeant who was stationed in Germany, urged his fellow inmates, all wearing blue jailhouse jumpsuits, to change their lives.
“I believe that the present uniform we’re wearing,” he said, “is not the one we were meant to wear.”