warning Hi, we've moved to USCANNENBERGMEDIA.COM. Visit us there!

Neon Tommy - Annenberg digital news

When Veterans Serve... Behind Bars

Margaux Farrell |
May 7, 2015 | 10:06 a.m. PDT

Staff Reporter

Veteran Inmates Doing Yoga (Margaux Farrell/Neon Tommy)
Veteran Inmates Doing Yoga (Margaux Farrell/Neon Tommy)
Flags adorn the jail cells inside the veterans' module at Vista Detention Facility of San Diego County, a daily reminder of these inmates’ service to America.

San Diego County’s seven jails average around 200 incarcerated veterans at any given time.

Two years ago, Vista opened a veteran-specific wing known as, Veterans Moving Forward. It contains two modules, each with 32 spots available for incarcerated veterans. 

The goal is to help veterans cope with the struggles that plague so many of them when they return after serving their country. For instance, roughly 20 percent of veterans suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder, according to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. 

Other issues include anxiety, depression, drug and alcohol addiction—which sometimes manifests in crime, leading to incarceration and sometimes repeated convictions.

“We could teach them all we want to in here but if we don’t follow up on the outside then everything we did goes to waste,” said Program Director Glendon Morales. “What we are doing here is thinking, for a change."

Morales believes that aftercare is largely responsible for their high success rate.

Since the program’s start two years ago, 250 veterans have been through it. Of that 250 only eight have returned to prison for new charges, and no one has returned to jail.

Morales strives to make sure that everyone who graduates from the program never returns to be incarcerated. 

Morales hopes to address veterans’ problems while they are serving their sentence by offering counseling and special classes. He then extends treatment by tracking their progress for a year after they are released. 

Some of the programs available to the veterans include art classes, anger management, addiction counseling, meditation and even yoga.

Grace Liu became a yoga instructor solely to teach prisoners. Liu is a part of the Prison Yoga Project, a non-profit organization advocating for and establishing yoga and meditation programs for prisoners throughout the country.

“I wanted to bring yoga to this population specifically,” she says. “I feel like this (incarcerated veterans) is a population that might need this even more than the general community.”

Liu says inmates have told her that doing yoga has helped them with physical, emotional and mental healing during their sentence.

Prison Yoga Video:

The San Diego Sheriff’s Department provides the correctional staff, and the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) assigns a justice outreach coordinator to Veterans Moving Forward. Everyone else involved, like Liu, is a volunteer.

Angela Simoneau is the veterans’ justice outreach coordinator for the VA San Diego healthcare system. Simoneau helps enroll the incarcerated veterans in health care, educates them about what they are eligible for and helps them find appropriate VA treatment programs post-prison release.

“Our main goal is trying to get them directly into treatment from jail so that they are not forced to go back into old behaviors,” Simoneau said.

Detention facilities across the country offer veteran-specific programs like Veterans Moving Forward. Simoneau says each program differs based on need and population. 

What sets Veterans Moving Forward apart from other programs is that they follow up with the inmates for a year after they are released, Morales says. 

Several officials from across the country have visited the Vista module because of its high success rate. Similar programing is now being offered to the general inmate population of inmates in Vista, but Morales says the program is still in its early stages of development.

SEE ALSO: State Of The Arts Education

Simoneau believes the success is largely due to the strength of the programming, and the support from veterans and volunteers. 

“The recidivism rate shows that they (veteran prisoners) are not committing new crimes compared to the general population who does not receive this kind of treatment,” says Simoneau.

The recidivism rate for those who have been through Veterans Moving Forward is about 10 percent, compared to roughly 85 percent for the general inmate population in Vista during that same time period, Morales says.

Veterans Moving Forward places a lot of trust in the inmates and affords them more freedoms compared to other areas of the jail.

General population prisoners, who are incarcerated for similar crimes as the veterans in Veterans Moving Forward, mostly drug and alcohol related, have very different experiences while serving their sentence.

The inmates in the veteran-specific module have an open door policy: they can walk around the modules, watch television, read books and talk with each other.

General population inmates are behind locked doors and spend their days in their cell with minimal time to fraternize, let alone experience something like yoga.

Prison Yoga Picture Slideshow:

Eric Shick, a probation officer, says that these incentives for the veterans come with a strict no-tolerance policy.

The modules are racially integrated, and no veteran shares a cell with someone of the same ethnicity. Morales says he will not tolerate racism or segregation, which is common in traditional jail settings.

Shick says the prisoners in Veterans Moving Forward are easier to manage compared to the general population he has dealt with during his 18-year career. This program is the only jail module in San Diego County to have not had a single incident, like a violent outbreak, in two years, according to Shick. 

He believes that the strong work ethic of veterans plays a large role in their positive behavior. Shick adds that the discipline and honor that comes with being a veteran contributes to why this program has been successful.

The program actually costs less to run than a traditional facility, Morales says. The veteran inmates do not fight, which holds down medical care and security costs. The inmates also fix all maintenance problems, like cleaning and plumbing, which save money on janitorial and repair services. 

Christine Brown, the program’s reentry services manager who helps guide inmates through release, says that the initial startup costs of starting these modules was less than $20,000. 

Brown says Veterans Moving Forward had minimal costs associated with it because they used internal funds that were already available. Now that the modules are up and running it has actually helped save money because the recidivism rates for the program’s graduates have been so low. 

Available space, sentence durations and severity of crime dictate whether or not a veteran qualifies for the Veterans Moving Forward modules. 

The veterans agree that they appreciate the value of the opportunities they are given.

John Falls, 52, says he has spent about 20 years of his life behind bars. He also served in the military overseas from 1979-1981.

Falls came to the Vista Detention Center after being caught selling drugs. He says his experience in the Veterans Moving Forward module has helped him become a better person, and he vows that this will be his last time returning to a detention center.

“I think this place has changed my life, and the way I look at things,” Falls says. “I’m learning how to be more open to everything, not just what I want to be open to.” 

Veteran Inmates Doing Prison Yoga (Margaux Farrell/Neon Tommy)
Veteran Inmates Doing Prison Yoga (Margaux Farrell/Neon Tommy)

William Hardy, veterans’ deputy and supervisor, and a veteran himself, says working in the veterans’ module is unlike any experience he has had before.

“Normally we are guard dogs, we enforce rules, it is a one-way street,” says Hardy. “Here it is a two-way street.”

Giving the prisoners more responsibility comes at a higher risk, but Hardy says he has never questioned the integrity of the prisoners or his safety during his job. Hardy’s goal is to help give the veterans opportunities to improve themselves so they are ready for life outside of the correctional system.

“I see myself as a jeweler, and I have a bunch of diamonds in the rough,” said Hardy. “I try to put those diamonds in the best setting so they will shine most brilliantly.”

Lita Carvalho is an alcohol and drug specialist who works on the reentry team. Carvalho says that addressing problems during prison stay is crucial to ensure a prisoner is successful once they leave. 

“This is a unique program because it truly is the future of recovery-oriented care where they focus on wellness,” said Carvalho. “This is not something I have seen before.”

Joshua Buckmaster, 33, served in the United States Navy from 1999-2005, and was incarcerated for the first time this year on charges of selling drugs.

Buckmaster says though he does not like to be in jail, he does like to be in the veteran’s module.

“Out in the civilian world, people don’t really understand what you (veterans) have been through and it is hard to relate,” said Buckmaster. “I know when I get out I am going to cry because I will miss this, and I will miss this brotherhood.”

Reach Staff Reporter Margaux Farrell here or follow her on Twitter here.



Craig Gillespie directed this true story about "the most daring rescue mission in the history of the U.S. Coast Guard.”

Watch USC Annenberg Media's live State of the Union recap and analysis here.