By Juan Haines
In the early hours of Nov. 11, several dozen military veterans from all branches of service gathered on a prison yard. Free veterans and people from the surrounding San Francisco Bay Area joined them to pay tribute to this national holiday.
Before the guests arrived, incarcerated veterans worked with military precision to set up a makeshift stage on the prison’s Lower Yard. Rows of cushioned seats were also set up for the visitors.
“This is not only about veterans,” said the event coordinator, veteran and inmate Ron Self. “We need to be united and be mentors to the youngsters in the Youth Offender Program (YOP).”
The YOP aims to steer certain young inmates away from high-security prisons where they would face more serious and violent criminal influences.
Inmate Devin Marque Cole, 24, said he came out to watch the ceremony because when he was younger, he wanted to join the military.
“I couldn’t join the military, because when I was 15 I got into trouble. That stopped me from being able to join,” Cole said.
During his teenage years, Cole said he’d been in and out of juvenile hall, which eventually led to his current incarceration in state prison.
Cole is currently enrolled in a computer coding class at San Quentin State Prison. He said the program will help him to find a good job when he is released from prison in 2018.
Cole sat next to D’Romeo Allen, 20, who has been incarcerated about a year. Allen is scheduled to be released from prison in 2023.
“Veterans Day is big,” Allen said. “It’s giving appreciation to people who fought for our country.” He added, “San Quentin is good for younger guys like myself because it offers a peaceful environment and gives a purpose to do something positive, with examples on how to live from older guys.”
“I do this to pay my respect to the fallen veterans who came before me”
San Quentin is home to more than 300 veterans, who make up less than 10 percent of the prison population.
Eo Rojas has been working with incarcerated veterans at San Quentin for about three and a half years.
“I’m a veteran and my son’s a veteran,” said Rojas. “During this time, I’ve come to have a deep respect for the men and the healing work that we do with Veterans Healing Veterans (VHV).” He added, “I want to be here to support them.”
VHV is a support group that helps incarcerated veterans connect Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and comparable past traumas to criminal behavior. Narrative therapy, which involves writing to remember one’s past to aid healing, plays a significant role in the VHV curriculum.
“To work with you veterans to build this has been an amazing honor,” said Mary Donovan, executive director of VHV. “There is awareness of the depth of care that veterans have for each other. That impulse to care about each other also exists inside the prison walls. The people outside don’t understand this. It hasn’t occurred to people on the outside that you guys are such powerful voices. I encourage you to use that voice.”
Norfleet Stewart of the US Army has been a part of veterans’ groups at San Quentin State Prison since 2011.
“I do this to pay my respect to the fallen veterans who came before me,” he said.
Stewart, who served in Vietnam from 1968-74, added “I honor all veterans around the world.”
“Every time I come in and meet with my group, I feel like you are ambassadors and I take your stories and share them with people on the outside,” said VHV sponsor Diana Williams.
She continued, “When people ask me why I do the work I do inside a prison, I am reminded of this quote, ‘If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come here because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.’ ”