ST. CLAIRSVILLE - The Belmont Correctional Institute officially opened its new military unit Monday. The program offers veteran inmates an environment of support and encouragement where veterans will help other veterans to deal with issues they uniquely face in their rehabilitation.
The program also includes a military preparation program for inmates due for release to make them ready for consideration enter the service of their country. A total of about 14 inmates have volunteered for the nine-week course.
This is the first program of its kind in the state and possibly the first in the county.
Mike Meintel, unit manager for the dorm, said the unit would reinforce and re-instill the core values of military service in the inmates. He called on the veteran inmates to act as mentors for the men in the preparedness program.
"We want the veterans to pass along the values that they were taught in the military," he said.
Meintel said about 50 of the 218 veteran inmates have volunteered to be housed at the unit. They will have access to outside resources including the Federal Veterans Administration, Veterans Administration and Job and Family Services.
"We are going to supply the incarcerated veteran with more outside support group than any other population that is released from this institution," Meintel said, adding that they hoped the unit would offer a means of regaining pride and self-respect.
He said the program would feature two tracks. Veteran inmates serving less than two years until release will have access to further job training and counseling with the goal of reintegration into civilian life with decreased recidivism.
Afterward, he noted that the unit has seen a majority of veterans from the Vietnam era, but with more veterans from Desert Storm and recent Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts. Veterans will deal with issues such as post traumatic stress disorder, traumatic brain injury, and related issues.
Military Activation Task Force Commander and Staff Sgt. Jeff Mustard acknowledged the volunteers for the preparedness program, noting they would be given the opportunity to earn a second chance.
"This is not a boot camp," said, adding that hard work and dedication would help them open doors.
Lawrence Griffith, inmate elected president of the Belmont Incarcerated Veterans Organization, thanked everyone who worked to give them this opportunity.
Corey Flugga, inmate vice president of the Belmont Incarcerated Veterans Organization, spoke about his own experiences in combat infantry where he earned a Purple Heart. He spoke to the military preparedness inmates, saying he valued every moment of his service.
"It takes a particular type of person to fight for his country," he said, adding their road would not be easy. "With hard work, your success will be something to celebrate."
Warden Michele Miller introduced further speakers. She also credited John Maddox, Re-entry Coalition Board member and longtime volunteer for his work with the inmates.
Ohio Supreme Court Justice Evelyn Stratton spoke about her family's military history and her own work in helping to provide mental health services and aid to veterans in the criminal justice system.
"Some of you are here because you bear invisible wounds of war. We did not understand in the Vietnam War era at all about PTSD," she said. "We understand even less about traumatic brain injury."
She added that an estimated 300,000 returning Iraqi and Afghanistan veterans may suffer such ailments. She spoke about the effort to share this information with judges and prosecutors. Stratton said while they continue to work integrate veterans courts and other services and agencies, the initiative at the correctional institute represents a second chance for those already incarcerated.
"We have learned from our veterans courts that our veterans who enter the program, which is voluntary as well, are the most highly motivated to get well, the most respectful of the system, the most caring about going back and doing something important," she said. "This is going to be a wonderful opportunity that I know you will be highly motivated to take, and we on the outside are going to do everything we can to help you succeed."
Ohio Department of Veteran Services Director Tom Moe shared his own experiences as a prisoner of war for five years alongside Sen. John McCain. He said while inmates often have cause to fear their fellow prisoners, the residents of the military unit would have an invaluable support network. He said that life carries good and bad consequences, but through planning, coping and adjustment, they could exercise control over their fates.
Ohio Department of Rehabilitation and Corrections Director Gary Mohr said the program's inmate's would become a family through shared commitment, shared experience and shared struggles. He added they were creating a model for the agency and said they had the chance to demonstrate to the state that a criminal record does not negate a person's future.
"Don't let this incarceration define who you are."
DeFrank can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org