Growing Number of Prisons Offer Special Dorms for Military Vets

PHOTO: Sheriff John Darr, of the Muscogee County Sheriffs Department announces the opening of a new Veterans Dormitory specifically meant to house U.S. military veterans at the Muscogee County Jail in Columbus, Ga., April 23, 2012.
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A west Georgia county jail opened a new dormitory Monday that will specifically house inmates who are military veterans.

The new dorm, built on to the Muscogee County jail nearly two weeks ago, adds to the growing number of prisons across the nation that have done the same in an effort to address the special needs of service members. The Florida Department of Correction, which opened special dorms for veterans in five Florida prisons in November 2011, is among them.

Muscogee County officials announced the opening of its new facility at the county jail in Columbus, Ga., at a public meeting Monday. Muscogee County jail is 20 minutes away from Fort Benning, one of the largest military bases in Georgia.

Inmates who are military veterans have substance abuse or mental health problems at higher rates than nonmilitary inmates, according to Neil Richardson, chaplain at the Muscogee County jail.

"Rather than trying to ascertain whether this is due to time in the military or not, the fact is they are veterans," said Richardson.

The new dorm can house up to 16 veterans. Those assigned to it will have a variety of community services available to them, such as a post traumatic stress disorder treatment program and a special Veterans Court, which was developed by the Department of Veteran Affairs.

The jail has also partnered with New Horizons for mental health counseling, and with the Plummer House for housing for homeless and previously incarcerated veterans.

An internal investigation by the Department of Veterans Affairs released this week said tens of thousands of veterans waited far longer in 2011 to receive mental health treatment than what the VA reported.

About one-third of VA patients wait longer than 14 days to start treatment, according to a report released by the VA inspector general. The VA is the largest veterans health organization available to service members.

Some VA benefits are suspended when a servicemember is in jail. The Veteran Court allows for veteran inmates to be sent treatment programs outside the state.

"We've given focus and attention on change," said Richardson. "We are backing them up inside and outside the facility."

All veterans will receive access to the special programs regardless of whether they are housed in the dorms, said Kimberly Perkins, Veterans Court coordinator at the New Horizons community service board.

Since troop withdrawal from Iraq, Perkins has seen the number of cases of veteran inmates skyrocket. Two years go, she handled six cases of veteran inmates. Now, she handles close to 50, most of whom were deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.

"They're back in the community, they're here for good," said Perkins, who is also a war veteran. "I think [special housing] puts them in a position where they are identified right away and their veteran-related issues are addressed right away."

Raul Roman, of Columbus, Ga., was released from the county jail before the new dormitories were opened but has taken advantage of the programs available through the Veterans Court.

Roman was diagnosed with adjustment disorder after returning from Iraq. After leaving the military in 2003, Roman says he had a hard time finding a stable lifestyle.

"I spent a lot of time away from my children and it made a negative impact on my children," said Roman. "I was also deeply impacted by the recession."

In June 2011, Roman was sent for nine months on drug charges -- his first criminal offense, he said. During his time in jail, he said he could most identify with other veterans, since many could relate to similar issues.

Roman said a veteran dormitory will only help to enhance the camaraderie among veterans and help those returning from combat to overcome the transition to civilian life.

"I think it's a good thing, especially for those with harder disorders to be around veterans," said Roman It's better than being around those who haven't been around the military."

"There's more of an understanding," he said.

Perkins agreed. Immediately, she began to see that the veteran dorm operates more like a military barracks.

"It really helps them to be in a place where they have battle buddies that can help them get through or even relate," she said. "It gives them some ownership of their own problems, take some responsibility of their situation, and accept the help."

Roman, who did not have the choice of being placed in the dormitory, chose not to wait out his sentence without help. Instead, he took advantage of the special veteran programs.

"It helped me overcome what I had been going through for the last few years," he said.

Roman will complete substance abuse treatment at a center in central Alabama on Friday.

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