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A year in, prison unit for veterans showing signs of success

By JULIA BERGMAN | The Day, New London, Conn. (Tribune News Service) | Published: November 14, 2016

Enfield, Conn. — Just after 11 a.m., the meeting began.

A group of men stood at the front of a room that features bald Eagles and American flags painted on the walls. The words "All gave some. Some gave all" are painted over a door.

One of the men stepped forward. He began reading the credo: to obtain the personal assets and goals necessary for reintegration, to be a respectful member of this community, society at large and their families.

Another man stepped forward and relayed the day's news: Donald Trump had been elected president.

After each spoke, others in the room clapped.

This was not the normal prison experience.

The 110 inmates present were residents of the veterans unit at Cybulski Community Reintegration Center at the Willard-Cybulski Correctional Institution in Enfield, part of a larger effort by the administration of Gov. Dannel P. Malloy and the state's Department of Corrections to help inmates transition back into society and prevent them from becoming repeat offenders.

It's too early to say whether the veterans unit has had any impact on recidivism rates.

Each inmate has seven years or less left on his sentence. The unit strives for a mixture of inmates with longer sentences and those with only a few years left. Corrections officials have said they don't want to the fill the unit only with veterans with a few years left because then there would be constant turnover. The inmates with longer sentences serve as pillars in the unit and help to keep the momentum going, they said.

To qualify for the unit, there's no minimum requirement for the period of time they served in the military. The men must have taken the oath to serve and must have a commitment to change. They are low risk offenders, but that doesn't mean they didn't commit violent crimes.

When inmates are interviewed to determine their eligibility for the unit, they are asked questions about their attitudes about discharge, whether they want to get treatment or be a peer mentor, among others.

There's a different philosophy behind these reintegration units. Karen Martucci, spokeswoman for the DOC, characterized that philosophy as "How do you want to live?"

The veterans have a chance to run the unit — with "our oversight of course," Warden John Tarascio said.

But the veterans here say that being able to make small decisions — such as what color to paint the walls — makes them feel empowered. They came up with the credo, and the morning meeting was also their idea, though it took awhile to get it going. The inmates have created their own newsletter. The first issue came out just before Veterans Day.

The veterans are shown a different level of respect and there's a level of expectation of them, inmate Michael Johnson said. Since moving to the unit, his days go by much faster, he said. And he's more productive. He helps maintains DOC's properties in Enfield — mowing the lawn, cleaning up trash, raking leaves.

Johnson was among the first to move to the unit, which was dedicated last November. Veteran inmates began being placed in the unit in early fall of 2015.

Johnson characterized his previous prison time as "More card playing and futile" during a recent interview in Deputy Warden Pat Kubec's office.

Johnson, 41, is short with black hair that's peppered gray. He sits back in his chair with his arms stretched out in front of him. His hands grip a black composition book.

This is not Johnson's first prison stint. He traces his problems to his father's death when he was 15 years old. His mother did not cope well, he said, so he was left to care for his two younger brothers.

It was around this time that he started using drugs. He finished high school and earned a scholarship for college, but lost that because of drugs.

He enlisted in the Air Force but didn't spend much time serving. He was given an uncharacterized discharge — given to an enlisted member of the military who has less than 180 days of service — for drug possession.

Johnson went to jail for the first time in 1997 for drugs, an ongoing issue, he said. He's been in and out of jail ever since.

"I didn't want to admit I was an addict so I didn't seek help," he said

Every time Johnson let his family down, he did drugs so he didn't feel pain, he said. He thought that if he didn't feel pain, his family wouldn't either. But they did and they let him know that, he said.

Johnson has 10 children, ranging in age from 18 months to 19 years old, all with the same woman.

In 2013, he broke into a family friend's house knowing the friend was on vacation. He was charged with third-degree burglary and sentenced in 2015 to five years in prison.

When he started at the unit, he got involved with every program he possibly could, including a basic addiction course. Inmates with the unit can partake in a number of different programs, led by their peers, such as how to create a resume. Two counselors are assigned to the unit.

"This is the first time I've been presented with all the tools to be able to change the way I think, [to] realize I'm an addict and change my life," Johnson said.

Noel Acosta, 38, was also among the first inmates to move to the unit.

He would sit on his bunk at night at Carl Robinson Correctional Institute in Enfield, where he served about 9 months, and wish he could be noticed by his behavior. He has a philosophy that a person is his true self when no one else is watching.

At Carl Robinson, he was told about the new unit for veterans, but he didn't know whether he would qualify given his short stint in the Army.

Acosta served just three months in the military because the migraines that had plagued him before enlisting intensified after he entered the service, he said.

He worked in security and on computers, and he started school for architectural drafting after leaving the Army. Acosta wanted to finish school and support his family, he said, but then he got a job at a night club. He started living that lifestyle, he said, which got him in trouble with his wife. The couple separated and the stress of that, he said, led to his addiction to pain killers.

It wasn't long before he robbed a liquor store.

Acosta doesn't try to defend his actions.

"If I had been home with my family, I wouldn't be here," he said in an interview recently, sitting next to Johnson in Deputy Warden Kupec's office. He is bald, wears glasses and has two children.

Acosta was found guilty of first-degree robbery with a deadly weapon and sentenced to 20 years in prison, suspended after 12 (meaning he only has to serve 12 years), with five years' probation. It was his first offense.

He has about 1½ years left in his sentence.

Since coming to the unit, he has developed high aspirations and goals. He formed an LLC for an information technology company he wants to start when he gets out, and has developed several business plans.

A Pell Grant, given to eligible inmates to pursue post-secondary education, has enabled him to take courses at Asnuntuck Community College just down the road.

Acosta and Johnson are two of seven mentors on the unit. Each is assigned a cube. There are eight inmates to a cube, a small section with four bunk beds. The mentors serve as the point person for the other inmates to talk with if they are having issues or have questions about programs. The mentors meet regularly with each other and with corrections staff to discuss what they are managing.

A year in, the unit is an example of a "success within a challenging state budget," Martucci, the DOC spokeswoman, said. But at the end of June, Malloy directed state agencies to save $130 million to balance the state's budget for the new fiscal year that began July 1. Almost $10.7 million of that must come from DOC.

Getting staff to buy in was a "huge process," Tarascio said. Corrections staff are custody-oriented and always will be, he said, and the staff was naturally apprehensive at first. But they've become convinced by the productivity of the inmates, the lower number of discipline incidents and the quietness of the unit compared to other prison facilities.

Word about the unit has gotten out. Information has been distributed across DOC's facilities, and about 30 people are on the waiting list to get in.

Since the unit's inception, about 230 veterans have been released.

Michele Roberts, the veterans justice outreach coordinator for the state Department of Veterans Affairs, travels to the state's different prisons visiting incarcerated inmates who are about to be released.

Roberts essentially does case management. She figures out their needs and provides them with information about substance abuse or mental health programs. She determines whether they are eligible for VA benefits, connecting them with the Department of Labor and finding temporary housing.

So far, Roberts said she has referred 25 former inmates of the veterans unit to Homes for the Brave, a halfway house for veterans. Four more were heading there in the past week. And almost all of those Roberts referred have been able to move out, she said.

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©2016 The Day (New London, Conn.)

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