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Inmates, dogs help veterans reintegrate into civilian life

Inmates, dogs help veterans reintegrate into civilian life
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This week, President TrumpDonald John TrumpAccuser says Trump should be afraid of the truth Woman behind pro-Trump Facebook page denies being influenced by Russians Shulkin says he has White House approval to root out 'subversion' at VA MORE signed an executive order supporting the transition of veterans from uniformed service to civilian life as result of observed challenges of reintegrating into communities after military service.

One group of Michigan veterans who experienced the challenges of transition partnered with their community to train emotional support dogs to assist others veterans with reintegration. What may surprise you about this group of Michigan veterans is they are inmates in Michigan’s Saginaw Correctional Facility.

Around the country, the Bureau of Justice Statistics estimates approximately 180,000 veterans from all service branches are in state or federal prison. Veterans represent 8 percent of the United States incarcerated population.

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Interestingly, 77 percent of incarcerated veterans transitioned from service with an honorable or general discharge under honorable conditions. Approximately half of the veteran inmates have a mental health diagnosis from a mental health professional.

 

Veterans behind bars post military service is a dynamic Thomas Winn is working to reverse. Winn, the warden at the Saginaw Correctional Facility, oversees this veteran-focused program that he believes is changing the lives of inmates, rescued shelter dogs, first responders and veterans.  

A soldier who served 27 years in the Army, Winn leads a prison in a state where more than 2,000 veterans are incarcerated. This year, Michigan became the 14th state to create a veteran-only ward, where Winn currently confines 200 inmates discharged from military service under honorable or general conditions.

Located near the Aleda E. Lutz Veterans Affairs Medical Center, it enables greater access to benefits earned with their honorable and general service discharges. It is a relatively new trend that more states are adopting.

Winn and the 62 veterans serving on his prison staff identify with service culture and harnessed it to unify the inmates. Earlier this summer, Winn’s inmates raised the American flag as well as flags representing each branch of military service and created military-themed artwork in the cells to commemorate the ward’s opening.

With an established culture improving the quality of prison life for veteran inmates and staff, Winn next focused on creating a greater bond through a shared mission. He partnered with the community to train the inmates to be dog handlers.

Many now train emotional support dogs for their fellow veterans and first responders through a partnership with the Michigan Dogs of Correction. Winn believes the partnership helps war-impacted veterans avoid the problems that led some of his inmates to incarceration.

The Michigan Dogs of Correction is the brainchild of three Michigan residents active in veteran support: Jennifer Petre, a Michigan Goldstar aunt; Christine Myran of the Eisenhower Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan; and Tricia Barnes of the Saginaw County Animal Care and Control Center

Petre’s nephew, Navy Corpsman Benjamin “Doc Stiggy” Castiglione, died in combat operations in Qal Yeh Now, Afghanistan, in 2009. Petre, a dog trainer, honors “Doc Stiggy” by rescuing shelter dogs, training them as emotional support animals and donating them to service members suffering from post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury. 

Myran has dedicated more than 20 years championing therapies for post-traumatic stress and traumatic brain injury, particularly for veterans. Petre and Myran met on the Eisenhower campus partnering service dogs with veterans, athletes and others rehabilitating from stress disorders and brain injury.

Barnes was inspired by the experience of her cousin, Army Staff Sergeant Travis Mills, who was struck by an improvised explosive device in Afghanistan in 2012, resulting in quadruple amputation.

This veteran-focused program exemplifies how veterans and their families apply service-related experiences to improve their communities. Through the vision and commitment of Winn, Petre, Myran and Barnes, shelter dogs are rescued, and incarcerated veterans voluntarily learn a vocational skill and get a sense of purpose being part of a larger mission.

The dogs who receive this training might otherwise be euthanized. Instead, they are fed, treated and then trained, spending 24 hours a day with their incarcerated veteran handlers who document progress for Petre’s review as part of the training. 

“Prisoners experience ‘no touch’ as inmates, but they must touch the dogs to train them as therapy dogs,” Petre said.  This simple concept of touch makes a world of difference for both the dogs and the veteran inmates.

One Marine inmate veteran shared his deployment experience, “I remember picking up remains on the battlefield and came home trying to deal with that on my own. Why did I live? Why didn’t they? I turned to alcohol.” Now serving a life sentence for a fatal alcohol-related car accident, the Marine is training dogs to help other veterans avoid the same fate.

“Through the program we have already seen incredible reductions in misconduct from the inmates, a sense of pride and unity among the veteran prisoners and an incredible commitment and care for the dogs,” Winn said.

The dogs graduate after 16 weeks of training and transition from the prison to Veterans Courts and the homes of veterans and first responders. The inmates then receive new shelter dogs and start the next 16 weeks of training.  

Jim Zummer, the prison’s residential manager said he believes the veteran inmates who served in conflicts ranging from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, learn discipline, how to reconnect with society and remake themselves as a result of the program.

Winn and his team continue to reach out to qualifying veterans in the Michigan correctional system to grow the veteran-only ward to its capacity of 240 inmates.

Veterans with other-than-honorable or dishonorable discharges also write to Winn to explain their discharge characterization with the hopes of joining the veteran ward. Winn continues to hold the ward and the veteran inmates selected to the established high standards.

While many of the veteran inmates serve sentences ranging from 25 years to life, participation in the program, as well as any steps toward rehabilitation while incarcerated are considered favorably during parole hearings.

Eries Mentzer is a United States Air Force colonel serving as a national defense fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The opinions expressed are her own.