On a rainy fall morning, inmates and officials gathered in SCI Muncy's beautiful chapel to celebrate a first for the facility, for the department and perhaps even for the country – a residential unit for incarcerated veterans.
While such a unit is not new at several of Pennsylvania's male facilities (Mercer, Houtzdale and Dallas, with plans for one at Phoenix), it is new for PA's female prisons (Muncy and Cambridge Springs).
Muncy and Cambridge Springs have approximately 40 verified incarcerated female veterans, compared to 3,000 verified male veterans housed throughout the prison system. Muncy houses 20 of the 40 female veterans, with only a handful actually residing on the Veterans Services Unit because it's new to the population. Officials expect interest in the program will grow and that more of the incarcerated veterans will opt to live on the unit. The remaining veterans actively participate and receive services through the prison's Veterans Service Office.
On the unit, incarcerated veterans are provided the opportunity to live together and to participate in programming. A dedicated room has been remodeled to accommodate the special programs, which include peer-facilitated and staff-led programs and workshops and coordinated service offerings from parole reentry staff, the education department, social workers, psychology staff and others.
At the ceremony, opening remarks were provided by Superintendent Wendy Nicholas, and emcee duties were performed by Reentry Services and Veteran Services Coordinator Troy Edwards. Speaking at the event and providing a DOC perspective to the issue of incarcerated veterans was the DOC's Statewide Veterans Coordinator Ryan Yoder.
Keynote speaker was Dr. Michele Papakie, who is chairwoman of the Journalism and Public Relations Department at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Papakie also is a lieutenant colonel in the 171st Air Refueling Wing of the Pennsylvania Air National Guard. She spoke to the inmates about her military experience and various traumatic events in her life.
Representatives from the Department of Military and Veterans Affairs, the DOC's Central Office and the facility attended the ceremony. In addition, WBRE-TV sent a reporter to cover the event.
Following the ceremony light refreshments and a tour of the unit were provided.