An estimated 181,500 military veterans are incarcerated in the United States making up 8 percent of the national prison and jail population, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics (BJS).
Incarcerated veterans are more likely to be "white, older and more educated yet more violent" than the rest of the the inmate population. Veteran prisoners are twice as likely as non-vets to have a mental disorder a mental health disorder or post-traumatic stress disorder -- 23 percent compared to 11 percent. According to research cited by The San Diego Association of Governments, Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans diagnosed with PTSD are twice as likely as other veterans to be arrested for crimes.
The Veterans Service Unit (VSU) at State Correctional Institute at Houtzdale is one of several veteran inmate programs across the country. The program helps veteran inmates with reentry into society and connects them with the benefits they earned from their service. The ultimate goal is to reduce the possibility to re-offend rate among veterans.
Veteran only cell blocks are full with men from all backgrounds: the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines and Coast Guard, who now wear the same uniform.
The Veterans Service Unit at Houtzdale focuses assists veterans with their reentry needs by focusing housing, employment, treatment and healthcare.
"We established 30 guys who we thought would bring good continuity to come down," Chris Reed, the Facility Veterans Coordinator, told our affiliate WJAC. "They helped organize it and basically set the foundation for what we have here today." Today, the unit houses about 132 veteran inmates.
Veterans Service Unit Manager Craig Petulla says inmated in the program are separated into three different platoons; the red, white and blue.
"The blue platoon is for our long-term offenders, greater than 36 months until potential release," Petulla said. "Though they are not nearing a release, they've found a purpose in being able to aid in the facilitation of reentry services to the red and white platoon members."
90 percent of the U.S inmate population will be released at some point, but inside the VSU, there's a small percentage who won't.
Matthew, a blue platoon member, was convicted of second-degree murder in 1995 and has been incarcerated ever since. He was active duty in the Navy when he was arrested at 20-years-old. Gary, a blue platoon member, was convicted of first-degree murder and other associated crimes in 1998. Both are now facilitators in the VSU and dedicating their lives to helping other veterans prepare for release.
"There's a common goal to get out, but not only get out, that's the easy part. Staying out, that's what the goal is," Matthew said. "The goal is to stay out of prison, not come back and become e a productive member of society."
Gary and Matthew both said helping their fellow veterans get ready to leave Houtzdale is a way of fulfilling their commitment to the service they dishonored years ago.
"The biggest thing it's given me is a healthy sense of purpose," Gary said. "Because of the length of my sentence, for me it makes the time go easier having something positive and healthy that I can participate in and help other guys." Petulla said 28 inmates have went through the program at Houtzdale and are now back out in society.
68 percent of prisoners will be arrested for a new crime within three years of release from prison and 77 percent will return within five years, according to the BJS report. But for people who go through programs like the VSU, it's around 15 percent.
WJAC spoke to 71-year-old Vietnam War vet, Robert Smith of Harrisburg, Pennslyvania about his time in the program. He was released from the VSU in December and currently lives in a facility that provides transitional housing for veterans. "I came back with a problem. I became addicted to opium over there when I was in the security unit because I had a lot of free time and that plagued me ever since," he said.
Smith told WJAC his drug addiction led him to commit robberies at banks and other businesses. He's spent the past 40 years of his life in and out of state and federal prisons. About 16 months ago, Smith was transferred to the VSU.
"I know it's prison, but it's an opportunity to get out of prison before you leave prison," Smith said. He served as a motivational speaker in the VSU and received mental health treatment.
"One of the biggest things that helped me was seeking safety. It was a course taught by a psychologist who connected PTSD with substance abuse," Smith said. "I learned so much more about myself and how a lot of things happened over the decades of drug activity."
Similar veteran inmate programs are popping up in prisons and jails across the country.
Florida, California and Illinois launched veteran inmate programs in 2011. Since then, more states have added all-veterans jail facilities, with slight variations on the name. The Albany County Jail in upstate New York calls it the "veteran pod" while Jails in Massachusetts and Arizona call it the "Housing Unit for Military Veterans" or HUMV for short.