Operating a successful Veteran Service Unit (VSU) prior to the COVID-19 pandemic was not an easy task. It takes a dedicated team comprised of staff and inmates, a supportive administration and a certain "esprit de corps" for the unit to take flight. Once airborne, team members need to selflessly utilize precious time and resources to ensure a smooth, productive journey to a mission-oriented destination: the land of successful reintegration of Veteran reentrants within our communities.
In any figurative or literal war, there are groups or individuals that rise up to complete tasks that surpass reasonable expectations. This article will focus on the efforts that the VSU teams at SCI Mercer and SCI Houtzdale have implemented in order to continue engaging their Veteran inmates in the midst of the pandemic, efforts that go above and beyond the call of duty. Although these specific institutions will be highlighted, several other institutions continue to find innovative ways to engage their Veteran populations in the face of these unprecedented challenges.
When asked what he missed most about normal operations on the VSU at Mercer, Veteran Inmate Jon responded, "The one thing I miss the most are the small groups. For example, the addiction groups, personal growth groups, and skill groups that prepare us for release and (life) after release. These small groups afford us the ability to brainstorm ideas, have introspection and examine ourselves for improvement. Most importantly, they help to build camaraderie."
Jon provided an insightful and important summary of what typical VSU life represents to each of the 100+ incarcerated Veterans housed on the unit at Mercer.
Although the pandemic has derailed "normal operations" within correctional institutions, Mercer and Houtzdale VSU staff have utilized remote learning opportunities in order to remain engaged with their Veteran population. At Mercer, weekly packets are distributed for the participants containing Veteran-themed puzzles, comics, inspirational quotes and stories. Houtzdale offers bingo, crosswords, puzzles, sudoku and packets by Dr. Christian Conte (Yoga, Dealing with Depression, Beating Boredom). Additionally, both institutions deliver remote correspondence courses through paper packets. These courses include, but are not limited to, Character Development, Defining Your Success, Coping with COVID-19, Parenting, Family Dysfunction & Codependency and Cycle of Violence. Houtzdale Veteran Inmate Gary stated that these materials have "provided a healthy outlet to work through frustrations connected to the pandemic."
The "call to duty" is what motivates the staff and VSU inmates to continue driving in a positive direction when faced with adversity. Between the two SCIs, more than 180 Veteran Inmates hang in the balance. It could have been an easy decision for the VSU staff to shut down the program(s) until the pandemic battle is over. More than easy, it would have been justifiable and would have allowed staff to focus more on the other duties and responsibilities that fall within the confines of their positions. However, VSU staff and inmates alike appear to be focused on providing continued support and meaningful service to each other in order to stay the mission of the program, successful reentry.
When asked what he is most looking forward to when normal operations resume, Mercer Veteran Inmate Travis said, "The Guardian Angel Medical Service Dog Program coming back. It gives those involved a sense of purpose and lets us help our brothers and sisters in arms. I know that training and caring for the dogs helped me in dealing with my PTSD."
Mercer Veteran Inmate Timothy is excited to "ramp up the newly approved Veteran X group, along with other groups, to provide as much helpful information to aid and assist Veterans prior to their release."
When asked what the toughest challenge will be in an attempt to get things back to normal following the pandemic, SCI Mercer Social Worker John Scanga replied, "For me, it will be a challenge to reestablish a rapport and some level of trust with many of the VSU reentrants due to the level of suspicion and doubt towards staff at this time. We will have to get things up and running again from the ground up, so to speak, and it will certainly be a new world with new policies and guidelines post-COVID."
Houtzdale VSU Unit Manager Matthew Pyo echoed Scanga's sentiments by stating that a hurdle will be "regenerating the momentum for reentry."
One thing that each of these VSUs has proven to date is that they are driven to succeed and will take any measures necessary to accomplish their goals. Undoubtedly, many barriers lie in the wake, and the uncertainty of the "new normal" leads many to a feeling of anxiety and hopelessness. However, the old "no man (or woman) left behind" cliché resonates more with this group than any other, and they will lean on their fellow comrades in order to persevere when order is restored. It is what they do, it is what they know, it is who they are.
"Being Challenged in Life is Inevitable, Being Defeated is Optional."
Special thanks to Superintendents Melinda Adams & Barry Smith, Unit Manager Matthew Pyo, Corrections Counselor Aaron Diaz, Social Worker John Scanga, and all of the additional VSU Staff and Inmates at SCIs Mercer and Houtzdale.