SQ hosts national conference on incarcerated veterans

By Juan Haines

Corrections officials from around the nation, who are working on veterans’ issues, came to San Quentin, where they found new ways to serve ex-military. The visitors also discovered that it is no easy task to get the job done.

“San Quentin is different than any other prison in the state,” Warden Ron Davis said at the Feb. 8 meeting in the prison’s Protestant chapel. “There are a lot of volunteers who come in and help with programs, which has created a culture where guys are taking responsibility and are being accountable for their crimes.”

James Dunbar and Ron Self offer aid to the prison’s veterans. State employee Madeline Tenney and community volunteer Mary Donovan support the prison’s two veterans programs.

Inmate Dunbar is the clerk for Vietnam Veterans of San Quentin (VVSQ). Tenney gives direct support to VVSQ.

“I never thought of myself as someone entitled, until a friend dragged me to a veterans meeting,” Dunbar said. “After involving myself with the veterans group, I have been on the right track and have been a more responsible person.”

Dunbar amasses information he believes would be useful to incarcerated veterans and posts it in the housing units. VVSQ provides the veterans with forms to obtain benefits, housing or other relief. Then the forms are filed with the Veterans Administration (VA). Dunbar admits that getting benefits from the VA is an adversarial process, especially when the resource guides are outdated.

“There are many veterans in the prison system who do not know they are entitled to benefits, such as upgraded discharge status. There is no clear way of getting the information to the inmates who need the services,” said Donovan, executive director of Veterans Healing Veterans From the Inside Out (VHV).

“Two and a half million Americans served in Vietnam, and 500,000 are in jail or prison,” incarcerated veteran Gary Cooper said.

San Quentin has 361 veterans, 79 of them on Death Row.

VVSQ as well as VHV serve any inmate seeking information about veterans’ services.

Inmate Self is the clerk for VHV.

To heal old wounds, VHV offers veterans narrative therapy, which is writing about past traumas in order to resolve issues, such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

VHV also offers the veterans yoga sessions and drama therapy.

Rodney Capell said drama therapy helps him through role-play. Now he can talk about himself in an honest and personal way, as well as interact with inmates of different races and cultures in ways he could not at other prisons.

Craig Johnson said, “I was able to recall things in my life, I thought I’d forgotten,” through narrative therapy.

“These kinds of transformations are remarkable,” said VHV free staff volunteer Emilio Rojas. “There are notable changes in how they carry themselves, after being in the groups.”

Warden Davis added, “Anything that gets these guys ready for release and helps keep them from coming back without burdening the taxpayers is something that should be supported.”

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