Unique jail caters to veterans serving time

March 8, 2011 7:20:43 PM PST
Officials with the Veterans Administration in Washington are taking a close look at a unique program in the Bay Area designed to help former soldiers who are out of the service, but in jail, held in a separate unit just for them.

Carlton Koonce has been out of the Navy for years and out of jail just a few months. He says going to jail saved his life. That's because Koonce was an inmate at San Francisco's County Jail No. 5. Every inmate in this pod is a military vet.

"When I first came in here, I mean just walking through the door you could feel the atmosphere," said inmate Bruce Romans.

It's a pilot program called COVER -- Community of Veterans Engaged in Restoration.

"The sheer fact that we are kind of a fraternity, a family, is a very powerful experience for me," said inmate Evan Graham.

Those who once served their country are now serving time with a focus on their special needs, including post-traumatic stress and substance abuse. Specialized therapy sessions help them identify the triggers of violent behavior.

COVER has been in operation since August under the direction of Sheriff Michael Hennessey who believes those who sacrifice for the nation are owed a debt from society.

"We're used to seeing happy scenes of military people emerging from the airport doorways and here we're going to have these men emerging from the jail doorways and you don't see those same happy scenes," said Hennessy. "I think the veterans coming through either door are deserving of our support and respect."

Hennessey says estimates there are about 140,000 vets in state and county jails. In San Francisco, about 5 or 10 percent of the 1,700 prisoners once served in the military.

"When there's not much of a safety net, vets will tend to fall through that," said Michael Blecker who served in the Vietnam War and heads Swords to Plowshares, a Bay Area vets organization founded in 1974. He helped create the jail house program. "I can't help thinking about what happened to Vietnam War veterans and how they ended up homeless, self-destructive, and suicidal, and having HIV issues and aging well past their own years, and we want to prevent that from happening to this young generation of veterans."

There is no formal funding for COVER. All the staff are volunteers and they are preparing for more men.

"We're going to be seeing an uptick of incarcerated vets who are coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan because also they've had multiple deployments," said COVER co-founder Sunny Schwartz.

One of COVER'S key strategies is to offer inmates access and information about government services and benefits. Officials with the Veterans Administration recently dropped by from Washington to see if the program should be replicated.

"[Without COVER I'd be] probably back out there on the streets in the old places I used to hang at which is the Tenderloin," said Koonce. "Probably be over there drinking again."

Instead, Koonce is living in housing run by the Salvation Army. He's clean and sober, has a job, and is there for his young daughter. He kept his wristband ID as a symbol of his time at the San Bruno Jail -- a place where veterans helping veterans helped him get his life back on track.

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