Chesapeake Prison Opens Wing for Vets

CHESAPEAKE -- The white tile floors, cinder-block walls and rows of steel bunks remind Raymond Riddick of the barracks he stayed in during boot camp in the mid-1980s.

"Only, the beds weren't bolted to the floor," the former sailor said while giving a tour of his dormitory at Indian Creek Correctional Center in southern Chesapeake.

Riddick, who's locked up following a string of car thefts, is one of about 60 former service members serving out criminal sentences in a new veterans dorm at the medium-security prison.

State corrections officials christened the wing during a ceremony last month, saying they hoped the program would change lives and prevent war vets from returning to prison.

Virginia is the latest in a series of states with large military populations, including Florida and Georgia, that have established veterans-only prison facilities to house and assist the growing numbers of Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans who find themselves in trouble with the law.

The Indian Creek dorm, open since spring, is one of two veterans wings started this year by the Virginia Department of Corrections. The other is in Haynesville.

About 2,000 of the state's 30,000 inmates identify themselves as veterans, though officials suspect the true number is larger. Many of them struggle with drug addiction and mental disorders.

"This dorm allows our veteran offenders a place where they can share ideas and have that camaraderie and that fellowship that comes with their shared experiences," said Jerry Mullen, a clinical supervisor who oversees the veterans program at Indian Creek. "We've developed a curriculum specifically to address post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse and other common issues faced by veterans."

The logos of every service branch are painted above the entrance of the dorm.

The men are supervised by prison guards with military backgrounds, and they are required to keep their beds and clothing shipshape.

Each is assigned a job with a military-themed title: The mess crew serves in the kitchen, the hazmat team is responsible for cleaning up spills, and the intel coordinator gathers information on veterans programs that might help inmates once they are released.

The voluntary program is open to veterans who have been honorably discharged, have shown good behavior and have fewer than two years left to serve.

Beyond the military-themed murals painted on the walls and the neatly made beds, signs that this isn't a typical prison facility can be heard in the nighttime screams of former soldiers struggling with PTSD, and seen in the bullet scars hidden underneath light-blue uniforms.

Counselors who are also former service members help the inmates work through mental health problems and encourage them to take responsibility for their crimes.

On a recent day, some of the veterans gathered in a common area and participated in a conflict-resolution scenario while others read quietly at their bunks.

One former soldier who served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan before being convicted of grand larceny in Chesapeake said he appreciates the efforts taken to help veterans with mental health problems. Even more needs to be done, he said, speaking on the condition that his name not be published.

The soldier was shot in the shoulder by insurgents in Iraq and suffers from PTSD. He said he hopes prison staff will do more to help inmates apply for Veterans Administration benefits.

"I give them credit for at least acknowledging that veterans need special attention and for trying to do something about it," he said.

Former Army Sgt. Richard Broome said the veterans program was exactly what he needed.

Broome, a former budget analyst at Fort Belvoir, was convicted several times of drunken driving.

The 42-year-old inmate said the program at Indian Creek helped him to take responsibility for his drinking problem and acknowledge that he could have killed himself or others every time he partied and then got behind the wheel.

Sharing space with fellow service members helped him to finally reach that point, said Broome, who served from 1992 to 2001.

"I joined the military because I needed that support and I needed that structure," he said. "I didn't realize I still needed it when I got out."

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