In Suffolk County, veterans who have found themselves on the wrong side of the law now have a rehabilitation resource in a peer setting.
Veterans returning home from military service abroad often struggle assimilating into everyday civilian life. Suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder and other emotional difficulties, some land in prison — for crimes such as those related to substance abuse — because of difficulty coping with the transition.
Suffolk County Sheriff Vincent DeMarco (C) announced the Incarcerated Veterans Re-Entry Initiative at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Yaphank last week. DeMarco spearheaded the new initiative along with Suffolk County Legislator Bill Lindsay (D-Holbrook), Judge John Toomey of the county’s Veterans Treatment Court, and veteran mentors from the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 11.
A block of cells, also known as a pod, within the correctional facility will now be comprised completely of veterans, who will have access to mentors and other services provided by the Northport Veterans Affairs Medical Center and others, as well as the added benefit of being around others with similar backgrounds and experiences.
“I don’t know of any population of citizens that we would rather have reintegrated into our communities and into our society.”
According to the sheriff, about 8 percent of inmates in the United States have served in the military. And there are about 174,000 military veterans living on Long Island alone.
DeMarco said in an interview after the event that Vietnam veterans have been approaching the sheriff about establishing a dedicated jail pod for many years, similar to what has been done for the adolescents who are separated from the rest of the jail population, but the county’s overcrowded facilities made it a challenge.
“Veterans who have served our country and have been honorably discharged, the lowest point of their lives [is] if they get incarcerated,” DeMarco said, adding that the program will focus on getting incarcerated veterans treatment through various nonprofits for PTSD, addictions or any other mental health problems their experiences in the service contributed to.
“I think we owe that to them. They put their lives on the line for us.”
Brig. Gen. Richard Sele was the keynote speaker and said it is important to treat these veterans with sympathy.
“As soldiers, in addition to the wide range of regulations and policies that we follow, we hold our soldiers accountable to values — very high values,” Sele said. “As a leader and someone who has commanded at various levels, I’ve done so in a very firm and fair manner. But one thing I’ve learned over the years is that you also have to show compassion. You can still be firm and fair and show compassion.”
Ralph Zanchelli, of the Vietnam Veterans of America Chapter 11, has been visiting jails on Long Island to serve as a mentor to veterans for about 16 years, and he spoke on behalf of the group.
“Housing veterans together is so very, very important,” he said. “They will be able to communicate with each other and support each other. We should never forget, when someone serves the country they sign a blank check, pledging to protect and serve the people of the United States of America, willing to give up their lives — and many have.”
“Veterans who have served our country and have been honorably discharged, the lowest point of their lives [is] if they get incarcerated.”
New York State Sen. Thomas Croci (R-Sayville) spoke about the importance of rehabilitating returning soldiers with mental health issues.
“I don’t know of any population of citizens that we would rather have reintegrated into our communities and into our society,” he said. “These are exactly the people that we want back in our communities, running our businesses, sharing their experiences in school as teachers, and in law enforcement.”
DeMarco addressed the possible criticism that everyone should be held accountable for breaking the law without preferential treatment.
“They’re being held accountable for their crimes, there’s no doubt about that,” he said. “They have to go to court. They’re going to be charged. They’re going to be sentenced. They’re not getting off easy. We’re just giving them a better place and services while they’re incarcerated.
DeMarco likened this jail block to a similar one established in 2011 for 16- to 22-year-olds, which included rehabilitative efforts and mentoring. He said the incarcerated population from that demographic has dropped 75 percent since then.