, 2014


Haynesville program prepares dorm full
of veterans for successful return to society

by Renss Greene

HAYNESVILLE—As I’m walking through security at Haynesville Correctional Center, I ask assistant warden Dr. Patrick Gurney about the appropriate language. I’m not sure how to refer to the people held at Haynesville: Inmates? Prisoners?

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Unit Manager Anton Daniel, who helped create and run the VETS program.

J. Terrell George, a 13-year Navy veteran, was discharged as a Petty Officer First Class, after a career as a Search and Rescue Swimmer and Aviation Boatswain's Mate. He has also served as a curator of the naval museum Nauticus. He is a disabled veteran, who had reconstructive surgery on his feet.

Trenton D. Kerns, a 10-year Air Force veteran, was discharged as a Staff Sergeant after working in information management for the Air Force's intelligence department. He left after experiencing Desert Storm and Desert Shield.

Donald Allen Young, a Navy veteran, was discharged as a Petty Office Third Class, having worked as a signalman aboard the Sixth Fleet's flagship USS Mt. Whitney during Desert Storm. He then went on to the Honor Guard at Naval Station Norfolk.

He tells me that the word officially encouraged by the Virginia Department of Corrections is “offender,” but that he generally calls people by their first and last names. He says it encourages mutual respect.

And in Haynesville’s Veterans Expecting To Transition Successfully (VETS) program, respect is the most important part.

The VETS program is a two-year reentry program for veterans who received an honorable discharge, a general discharge, or who were categorized “other than honorable discharge” from the U.S. military. That basically means veterans who did not receive a dishonorable discharge.

All offenders must go through a six-month reentry program prior to leaving Haynesville, but veterans may volunteer for this two-year program instead.

The program had its official opening in November of 2012, but in fact has been going on since June 1 of that year. It consists of four phases, all designed to help veterans prepare for rejoining life in the outside world in what the Department of Corrections calls a “cognitive community.” Offenders relearn how to live in normal society, how to cope with its difficulties, how to succeed and be self-dependent, and what kinds of benefits are available to them.

Veterans in the program live and sleep in a particular area, one side of one of six dorms at Haynesville. Anton Daniel, the unit manager for three dorms including this one, says the vet dorm stands out.

“It’s the quietest dorm,” Daniel tells me. “I mean, every place has issues, but they have come to work it out between themselves sometimes, and when they can’t, they bring in the staff. They have the least institutional infractions.”

He says the population in this dorm is also older than the other dorms; every person in this dorm is, of course, at least old enough to have completed one term of service in the military.

Upon entering the vet dorm, I’m introduced to three people who are participating in the VETS program, and who are apparently eager to tell me about VETS. They don’t want to tell me exactly what offense brought them to prison, but they all tell me it’s their first time in prison and they all have plans for when they get out. Dr. Gurney tells me that Haynesville has a 0% recidivism rate so far.

One is Donald Allen Young, a Navy veteran who served as a signalman aboard the command ship USS Mt. Whitney during Desert storm. He frequently interjects in our group conversation with wry observational humor, and crosses optimism with cynical wit. Upon leaving the military, he said he “Got out, milled around for a while, got in a motorcycle wreck, wound up picking some old habits back up.”

“If I got out right now, my plans would be I’m probably going to drive a truck for about a year. Long haul,” Young tells me. “And that should allow me the finances to get back on my feet, and a chance to figure out what I want to do, what I want to get my bachelor’s in.”

In fact, while in prison, he has recently earned his general studies associate’s degree at Rappahannock Community College.

Another is Trenton D. Kerns, a 10-year Air Force veteran who worked in the Air Force’s intelligence department. He is in turns tranquil and effusive as he leads me on a tour of the vet dorm, and puts me in mind of a pastor or teacher. He’s not a very large man, but he has a very large presence. The structure of VETS involves offenders organizing themselves, and Kerns is in fact senior coordinator of the program.

“I had a great military career,” Kerns tells me. “Desert Shield, Desert Storm. Was over there when the war first started, was on the flight lines when we first dropped the bombs on them. After the war, I got out. I promised myself that if I make it out alive, after SCUD missiles going over your head, and going through the things that went on over there, if I make it back alive I promised myself I’d get out of the military. And that’s what I did.”

His wife was still in the military, and their military careers had kept them apart, so he gave up the career so that she could stay in. He has three daughters, who he says have been straight-A students throughout school. And he doesn’t really plan to steer clear of prison once he’s released from Haynesville.

“My goal is to one day come back into the prison system, not as a prisoner, but as a counselor, as an advisor, as someone who can help these gentlemen,” Kerns said. In the meantime, he has plans to open a limousine company upon his release, and says that with his wife’s help he has found a backer for this while in prison.

Also in the group is J. Terrell George, a hulking man who tells me he was a search-and-rescue swimmer with the Navy, in addition to directing aircraft when on land. He comes across as self-possessed and self-confident, in spite of or perhaps because of his circumstances. You’d never guess it to look at him or talk to him, but he’s a disabled veteran. An injury resulted in reconstructive surgery on his feet. He tells me he has 60 more days and he’s out. He plans to be very busy once he leaves: He will rejoin his wife and two boys, pick up the real estate business in which he worked before going to prison, and hopes to open his own business as well.

“In here I went to school and got my barber’s license, so I feel like I have more of an edge,” George tells me. “I don’t have to resort to the streets no more. I have more of an edge where I can control my income, I can control my time and my destiny and what I really want to do now.”

“I didn’t know, until this program, how many veterans out there really struggle because they don’t have the information that we have, and by me obtaining that information, I can go out there and maybe be a volunteer for the DAV, and get positive information out. Because it’s a lot of vets that’s on the street homeless, don’t even realize the benefits that they do have.”

Then George tells me a surprising thing: he wishes there was a program like VETS outside of prison.

“If we had this type of program coming out of the military, a lot of people wouldn’t be in here, because we’ve got a lot of good information in here,” George says. “It’s too bad we had to come to prison to get this program to show us the positive way that we can use our benefits as veterans.”

Sitting around a table in the dorm as other members of the program go about their daily lives around us, I ask the men how they wound up in the VETS program. Kerns speaks up first and tells me that he saw a flyer while at Green Rock Correctional Center in Chatham.

“I didn’t even give the guys a chance to look at the thing, I think I took it off the board,” Kerns says. “I said hey, I’ve gotta have this. You know, military, what’s inside of me, it’s a brotherhood that we carry all the time.”

That sense of brotherhood and mutual respect is a central theme of our conversation.

“In the military, there’s a certain code, that you take care of the guy next to you, even if you don’t like him,” Young tells me. “You could hate his guts, and he’ll still take care of you.” And that is reflected in the environment of the vet dorm.

“The atmosphere itself is totally different than the rest of the prison, because we can relate to each other by being veterans,” George says. “And it’s kind of in-house. We look out for each other. We might have a conflict with each other every now and then, but that’s just for us, it’s like we’re all brothers brought up in the same household.”

“A general population dorm is going to be a bit chaotic,” Young tells me. “You would lack the ability to be able to focus on personal development. You can, and I’ve done it before, but it just doesn’t provide a proper environment for it.”

The men admit to me that they seldom lock their lockers, which is something they would never have dared to do in other dorms.

“I don’t even know my combination to my locks in here,” George continues. “I mean, it’s not going to happen. We look out for each other. If somebody needs something, we’re there. Nobody goes without in here if we can help it.”

Although the concept evolved elsewhere, the VETS program is unit manager Daniel’s brainchild, and the first such program in the state. Other prisons are now moving to imitate Daniel’s program.

“He has a lot on his shoulders. He will take our weight and put it on his shoulders, and make things go through,” George tells me.

The men credit a sense of structure from the military with helping them form a relatively peaceful and orderly community within the prison. The day begins with a 7:15 a.m. briefing, during which vets talk about the day ahead, compliment one another with what they call “push-ups,” and express concerns with “pull-ups.” They go about their daily routines, exercising, eating, and working jobs around the prison. At 3:30 p.m., they have an afternoon debriefing similar to the morning briefing.

Since everyone in the dorm has been in the military, and many of them have had jobs outside of the military, there is also a lot of know-how going around in the dorm.

“Knowledge is key,” Kerns tells me. “That’s one thing about being a veteran. The majority of them are willing to learn, have learned, and will always continue to learn.” He tells me that there are a lot of offender-led seminars in the dorm, as vets share their knowledge and experience among each other.

“My wife had a problem with the computer at home, and she was talking to me on the phone about it,” George recounts. “And instead of going to an IT tech, it was a dude in here that was an IT tech, and he got on the phone and told her exactly what it was, and got it fixed.”

“My goal is to help every person that I can,” Kerns tells me, speaking about becoming the senior coordinator for VETS. “They say you can’t help everyone, but I don’t believe that. I believe that you can help everybody who wants to be helped. And if they don’t want to be helped, I still encourage them.”

As I prepare to leave this microcosm of a society inside the Haynesville Correctional Center, the men leave me with a perspective from the people who can’t.

“Just because someone is in prison, understand that...at any time, that could be you, it could be your brother, it could be your husband, it could be your son,” Kerns tells me. “At any time, one mistake, whether it’s yours or not, can cause you to be in this situation. So, when a person comes out of prison, don’t look at them as if ‘Oh, what did he do,’ or ‘What did they do.’ Look at them as someone who may have been lost, but now they’ve found their way, and help them.”

“Had I gone home right after I left the military, I would have been a third generation corrections officer, no doubt,” Young said “That’s what my family did. I used to think that I knew what a prison was. Most folks don’t have perspective. They watch Law & Order, they watch a lot of these shows, and they watch, you know, even Lock Up, and they get to see the worst of the worst, and they don’t understand that most people in prison are really decent people.”


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