By BROCK VERGAKIS
CHESAPEAKE, Va. (AP) - A sergeant at arms, hazmat crew, and intelligence team working in uniform behind guarded gates and a barbed-wire fence isn't anything out of the ordinary in this region that's home to major military installations. But the men chosen to perform those tasks a few miles from the North Carolina border are unusual.
Unlike their comrades who perform these duties on ships and bases, about 80 civilian prisoners are doing so as inmates at the medium-security Indian Creek Correctional Center. Each served in the military before landing in prison, and state officials hope grouping them together to create a military environment will help change their lives and keep them from returning to prison. About 2,000 of 30,000 inmates in the state prison system say they are veterans, though officials say there may be more.
The Virginia Department of Corrections opened two dormitories this summer exclusively for veterans _ one at Indian Creek and another in Haynesville _ where inmates have served in conflicts from Vietnam to Iraq. Similar dorms have opened at several prisons in Florida, another state home to a large veteran population, as well as at a jail in Columbus, Ga., near Fort Benning. The inmates receive therapy that addresses some problems such as post-traumatic stress disorder, anger issues or substance abuse problems that may have led to them winding up in prison.
Prison officials say these treatments help reduce recidivism among all inmates, but that grouping veterans together may be particularly effective.
"These offenders have a particular bond because of the service they did for their country, and what they learned when they were in the service, all the good things they learned in the service, all the discipline and structure, is morphed into this program so that those things can now be channeled positively to help them," said Virginia Secretary of Public Safety Marla Decker.
They're also given information about resources for veterans to help continue treatment and find housing and employment after they're released.
"Before being part of this dorm, I didn't know I was qualified for more benefits in the military, and being in the dorm helped me with that and gave me more confidence with an outlook to adapt," said Johnny Casiano, a Navy veteran who is serving time in Indian Creek for arson after trying to kill himself in a Fairfax County house fire he lit.
Casiano, is expected to be released from prison by the end of the month. He's battled drug and alcohol abuse ever since his brother was killed in New York while Casiano was serving in the Navy in the early 1980s _ retribution from rival gang members who couldn't attack Casiano because he was in the military.
Casiano said he's learned the tools he needs to live a productive life with the support of his fellow veterans.
"My greatest fear on getting help was overcoming the fear of opening up to someone. Today, I'm not afraid to speak to no one. I can open up to anyone and get past that hurt," he said.
At Indian Creek, each inmate is given a job that harkens to terms many learned in their military service. The sergeant at arms is in charge of enforcing rules like making sure everyone's shirts are tucked in and making sure no one reads magazines in therapy. The mess crew serves as the kitchen staff, the hazmat team is responsible for waste cleanup, and the intel coordinator provides news and information from the outside world.
The logos of each branch of the military are painted on the entrance to the dormitory. Murals painted by inmates above the bunk beds include paintings of the Navy's Blue Angels, as well as the logo for Prisoners of War. There are reminders of the program's goals on the walls, too, such as remembering to deal with stressful situations and learning how to accept and cope with major losses. The idea is to create a sense of community, trust and accountability.
"It helps a lot because we're like-minded and, you know, there's an understanding that he understands where I've been and some of the things I may have gone through. While I may not have done any deployments, I understand those guys that maybe experience some PTSD issues. It also helps in a major way because this program instills structure and discipline, and it's easy for me because I did it in the military," said former Army Sgt. Richard Broome, who is in prison for multiple driving under the influence convictions he got after leaving the Army in 2001.