A new wing for a special group of detainees at the Suffolk County Correctional Facility in Yaphank lacks the sterile, muted hues and institutional decor of most penal institutions.
High above the tiers of this housing unit hang the Stars and Stripes and the bold-colored flags of all branches of the U.S. Armed Forces. The banners honoring Marines, soldiers, airmen and sailors who served in peacetime and during war are comforting sights for the 16 or so men housed there.
They have all been charged with or convicted of crimes, but they are segregated from other inmates because they are veterans.
Designers of the Veterans Re-Entry Pod at the Suffolk jail in Yaphank said that’s because military experience calls for an incarceration that honors their service even as it metes out an appropriate sanction for their crimes.
“These people have seen horrors like we can’t even imagine,” said Suffolk Sheriff Vincent DeMarco, architect of the program, which launched three months ago. “This is real.”
The Veterans Re-entry Program includes wraparound services such as counseling, mentoring, court advocacy, education and training that help veterans transition into society after release, the sheriff said.
“It’s bringing a lot of information to us vets who are desperately in need of help,” inmate Brian Green, 48, said of the program. “We all share a common bond. If someone’s feeling down, you can feel it. . . . I’m very proud of having served in the military.”
Indeed, the four-year Army veteran and repeat drug offender said he finds the colors flying above him every day to be soothing, a reminder of the life he led in uniform.
The Central Islip resident said he is happy to be housed among the ranks of those who have served in wars past and present. In the wing, Green said, he has found an esprit de corps similar to what he experienced as a soldier from 1985 to 1989.
Veterans such as Green acknowledge it sometimes is their military service that is at the root of their criminal behavior.
“The majority of the veterans that are here would not be here if they hadn’t served,” said Ron Pacchiana, a Navy veteran and member of the Suffolk County Chapter of the Vietnam Veterans of America (Chapter 11), speaking inside the wing. “They’re dealing with issues that they brought back with them from the wars and were not addressed when they got out. If they get the right treatment and the right program, the idea is when they leave here they become productive members of society.”
The chapter’s members, including Frank D’Aversa and Ralph Zanchelli, have been visiting veterans inside the Suffolk jail monthly for up to 18 years, mentoring kindred souls and performing court advocacy in Suffolk County Court Judge John J. Toomey’s Veterans Court.
For DeMarco, the veterans program has long been a dream. He used the special Youth Re-Entry Program — another correction program that he designed for a specific population — as the main model for vets.
Until recently, the two jails he oversees in Yaphank and Riverhead were too crowded to make it a reality. But DeMarco said that in recent years, the daily average count for inmates at both facilities dropped by one-third, from 1,800 to about 1,200.
That dip in admissions allowed him to devote a section to a population whose needs he said often are neglected and hard to meet in a correctional setting — and at no cost, because county agencies and nonprofits provide many of the services.
Up to 100 veterans will be housed there each year, officials estimate. They come with their own set of issues.
A 2015 federal Bureau of Justice Statistics study found that about 8 percent of all inmates are veterans and half of incarcerated veterans were diagnosed with a mental disorder.
Studies show that, as a group, veterans have more difficulty finding employment and housing, a common consequence of frayed family ties. In addition to acute health challenges such as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), mental illnesses, and drug and alcohol abuse, many — especially those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan — increasingly suffer from traumatic brain disorder.
Suffolk jail officials said that veterans may be more likely to end up in the criminal justice system because of difficulty adjusting to life after service. The PTSD that many have makes it challenging to adjust to civilian life after having lived for years in communal settings under conditions with clear, if strict, boundaries on behavior.
The hope is that the Suffolk jail’s veterans wing gives the inmates a more familiar place in which to serve their time.
“Just having them housed together is better for them,” DeMarco said, adding that the inmates face a gamut of charges, including burglary, robbery, assault, drug crimes and driving while intoxicated.
There are more than 350 courts nationwide that cater to veterans, according to a study by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, and special housing quarters in jails and prisons have been created in several states.
Florida has five prisons with housing units like Yaphank’s veterans re-entry pod, and Georgia’s Muscogee County jail has one, too. Others exist in Virginia and Pennsylvania prisons, as well as a number of California jails.
“We made the commitment to start and we had to make it up as we go,” said the Rev. Neil Richardson, chaplain of the Muscogee County jail in Columbus, Georgia, who helped install the veterans dorm there in April 2012.
He said the program runs much like Suffolk’s and has an enviable track record: Of the 334 men who have lived in the dorm, just 22 percent of those who have been released have re offended. That record exceeds the success of the regular jail housing units, Richardson said, as they tend to see recidivism rates of about 67 percent.
“If you can find a way to go from 67 percent down to 22 percent, that’s substantial,” Richardson said.
DeMarco noted that the Veterans Re-entry Program tries to balance recognition and respect for these inmates’ civic contributions while holding them accountable for crimes they committed.
Mentoring services provided by the Vietnam veterans group and special consideration at Veterans Court complement DeMarco’s program, along with other services provided by county, state and nonprofit agencies and organizations.
They include a mental health and wellness program with an emphasis on PTSD, Tai Chi and meditation, legal assistance, financial coaching and college advising.
On a recent day, East Islip native Rohan Murphy, a professional motivational speaker and former star wrestler from East Islip High School, whose legs were amputated when he was a child, told the veterans group that his success was evidence that they can do well in life, too.
“By the looks of it, you guys all have your legs,” he said to the inmates assembled in the jail chapel. “What’s stopping you? What’s holding you back?”
Murphy later said he was honored to be able to give something back, a little nudge of inspiration, to veterans who have served the country.
A former U.S. Coast Guardsman who is an inmate, serving a sentence for violating probation on a drug sales conviction, had positive words as he looks to the future.
“I think it’s a very good program,” said the 35-year-old, who asked not to be named. He said he is mostly interested in using the program’s nuts-and-bolts bridging services: financial aid to help him with housing costs upon release.
“I didn’t know about some of those services that were available to me as a veteran before I came into this program,” he said. “I’m glad I do now.”