Troubled veterans to be focus of new unit in Pittsburgh prison

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Veterans have sacrificed for all of us, so when some of them get into trouble, they deserve the clearest possible shot at a second chance.

That's the sentiment that has been driving William Woods, a deputy superintendent at State Correctional Institution Pittsburgh, in his work toward the launch next month of a special veterans unit at the prison.

"By kind of putting those guys together in a squad or a group, it allows them to share their experiences to help each other out," Mr. Woods said Wednesday. "It looks at building camaraderie based on what they've gone through in the service."

The veterans service unit that will open in the prison's B Block will be the first such pod in Pennsylvania and eventually may house up to 250 former servicemen. Veterans will get treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, and any drug or alcohol problems and be connected with services to help them parlay their experience into employment on the outside.

The prison's preparations have included outreach to local courts and services for veterans and even the commissioning of art created by inmates who have been in the service.

The state's roughly 50,000 prisoners include 2,776 known veterans. They share both challenges and opportunities that aren't common among other inmates.

"Most of them did something prior to service or during service that makes them employable," Mr. Woods said.

Their root problem often is post-traumatic stress disorder, Mr. Woods said. That common reaction to the stress of combat often drives anxiety and other emotions that, in turn, can lead to abuse of drugs and alcohol. That can result in crime.

The new unit will take a military-style, three-pronged approach to those problems.

First, unit members will go through a nine- to 12-week orientation aimed at treating PTSD and crafting an individual treatment program.

They will be welcomed into a brotherhood that is reflected on the walls. Inmates with artistic skills and military backgrounds have painted large canvases that decorate the unit. One painting shows the White House, the Liberty Bell, a bald eagle, a flag and other symbols of patriotism. Another depicts the landing of a helicopter in the desert and servicemen in uniform, with warships and fighter jets. One captures three Vietnam-era soldiers, and one portrays seven historical uniforms, dating back to the Revolutionary War.

The second aspect of the approach divides the men into "squads" of 10 to 12. Together, they'll work through issues from addiction to violence.

To do that, they will use a veteran-tailored version of the "therapeutic communities" approach that is used elsewhere in the prison. Addiction experts from the private firm Gaudenzia will counsel inmates, who will live in small groups that police their members' own behavior.

Inmates also will talk with former soldiers who have gone through incarceration and mental health issues, said Ebony McDonald, a re-entry specialist with the Department of Veterans Affairs. They'll find out, she said, that "somebody has gone through what they've gone through and made it to the other side."

The third phase will start shortly before the inmate's release date. Veterans Affairs professionals will come in to start setting up services the veteran will need on the outside. The inmate's family will be engaged in the effort and invited to a graduation ceremony.

Even before they're out, the veterans will be connected to services aimed at helping them to find homes and jobs, Ms. McDonald said.

"These veterans programs," she said, are "based on the fact that veterans are used to structure. They've gotten the structure in the military, and many of them never lose that."

As a result, veterans make good employees, and the VA will sometimes even pay their salaries while they get back in the swing of things.

Mr. Woods said the program is partially modeled on veterans units in Virginia prisons. The Pittsburgh prison also consulted with Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge John A. Zottola, who supervises the county's veterans court.

The federal court also unveiled a special veterans effort in late October, and a pilot veterans unit is in the Federal Correctional Institution Morgantown in West Virginia.

Mr. Woods said the idea has gotten strong support from state Corrections Secretary John Wetzel.

"John Wetzel has really preached re-entry," Mr. Woods said. "This is what I believe will work to keep those guys out there."

If it works well, Mr. Woods said, the department could open similar units in the central and eastern parts of the state.

The prison's new superintendent, Mark Capozza, served in the U.S. Coast Guard Reserve. Mr. Woods isn't a veteran.

"I've spent my life working in corrections," Mr. Woods said. "There's so many veterans on both sides" -- behind bars and working as guards.

"This is a great way to help these guys out."


Rich Lord:, 412-263-1542 or Twitter @richelord.


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