Veterans wing at Saginaw Correctional Facility helps servicemen who found trouble at home

Published: Oct. 26, 2018 at 2:21 PM EDT
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(10/26/2018) - When veterans leave the military, they sometimes have a difficult transition back into civilian life.

That difficult transition can lead to time behind bars.

There's a trend across the country setting up veteran's only units within the prison walls. The only one like it in Michigan is at the Saginaw Correctional Facility in Freeland.

The prison in Freeland consists of 11 buildings with Level 1, 2 and 4 inmates. The higher the level, the higher the security risk posed by those prisoners.

There are more than 240 men here who have served our country.

"I was in the United States Navy, served from 1986 to 1993, Desert Storm vet, did what I had to do out there," said Jeff Blalock.

He had a tough time readjusting to normal life, partially because of what he saw and did overseas.

"I left the military with post traumatic stress disorder and it wasn't that big of an important item for the military back then compared to now," he said.

Matthew Stoy served in the U.S. Marines from 2002 to 2007 and also had a tough time acclimating back to civilian life.

"I had some difficulties that ended up in a snowball effect after a number of years, and that's part of the reason I am here now," he said.

Stoy and Blalock now live in Building 800 at the Freeland prison. The Michigan Department of Corrections has designated it as the Veteran's Unit.

Inside, it almost has a barracks feel instead of prison with art work that veterans painted on the walls. Most of the correctional officers in the building have also served in the military.

"Thirty veterans work at this facility and the majority want to work in that unit," said Warden Tom Winn, who has served in the military for 28 years.

Veteran wings in prisons have been popping up across the country in the last few years. The concept allows veterans to live together because they have a common bond.

They also have access to programs for veterans workshops, which will hopefully reduce recidivism and support successful community re-entry.

"There is a common understanding, a common respect," Stoy said. "I think we are very fortunate to have this opportunity to be around our peers and fellow veterans that we can relate to."

U.S. Army veterans James Pearson of Flint said the atmosphere in the veterans unit is much more laid back than other areas of the prison.

"It's not stressful here," he said. "Level 4, it's stressful sir. You have young guys and gangs. It's a stressful situation, but here it's more relaxed because we are veterans and more mature."

Winn said Michigan's veterans unit landed at Saginaw Correctional Facility because it sits close to the VA hospital in Saginaw. He believes serving their time together gives the inmates a sense of pride that they haven't been forgotten.

"We have outpatient mental health," Winn said. "A lot of these gentlemen suffer from PTSD, so our outpatient mental health team actually helps them with groups and workshops to come through some of those."

There are other programs for veterans, including MI DOC, where shelter dogs are trained to become service animals for veterans and first responders with PTSD.

"The daily therapeutic value of the dogs, as most people know, is without parallel," Stoy said.

There is even a chair program, where veterans make chairs decorated with military insignias. Winn said when other veterans hear about the unit in Freeland, they want to serve their time here.

"I probably have 20 throughout the facility that are just waiting to go into that unit," he said.

They have made mistakes, in some cases deadly ones, but they are not serving life sentences, they will get out someday and most believe they will have an easier time adjusting to the outside world once they are released than when they left the military.

"There are guys that don't have the physical injuries, but a lot of mental injuries, and so this helps them transition from here back into society," Pearson said.

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