A unique program is trying to ensure veterans who've served time in prison don't face a tough battle for a job when they're released.
Soldier On, a nonprofit organization based in Massachusetts, runs an incarcerated veterans program focused on training and preparing inmates for life after prison. The program is now in its third year after recently expanding into Mississippi.
The Mississippi Department of Corrections implemented the concept at one of its facilities in 2016, and so far the initiative has helped at least 56 former inmates and veterans get back on their feet after spending time behind bars.
“Programs like this are going to save the state money because we'll have fewer people in prison and more rehabilitated people getting on the right track and improving their lives, their family and their community,” MDOC commissioner Pelicia E. Hall said in a news release about the program. “This is a workforce development program that changes the direction of people who may have gone down the wrong road. This turns them into tax payers rather than tax burdens.”
The initiative is based on a program started in 2014 by Soldier On at the Albany County Correctional Facility in New York. Soldier On administers programs assisting veterans in several other states. The counterpart inmate veterans program in Mississippi was started with the help of Voice of Calvary Ministries, which assists homeless veterans and their families.
Phil Reed, president and CEO of VOCM says the core of the initiative is centered around Moral Reconation Therapy.
“It really is a well put together program that works with the veterans,” Reed told Fox News. “[It makes them think about] what kind of choices did you make to get you here and what are you going to do differently starting today and especially when you get out so you don’t make the choice to come back?"
B.R. Hawkins, the grants manager for Soldier On in Mississippi, says the program is supported by federal grants from the Department of Veterans Affairs and Department of Labor at no cost to state taxpayers. The goal is to reduce the chances of an inmate returning to prison.
“We work with them in getting stable housing before they come out,” Hawkins told Fox News. “And work with them as much as possible to get a job before they come out. So right now we have about 38 veterans enrolled in our program.”
According to Soldier On, 277 veterans at the Albany County Correctional Facility have been admitted into the program since 2014. Only 12 veterans have returned to prison due to a new charge.
Hawkins said she and her team personally follow up with each former inmate helping them restart their lives. She notes many employers may have an issue with hiring a convicted felon, but she’s found employers willing to give those released a new shot at life.
Eligible participants in the program are moved or transferred to a special ‘pod’ or group located at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility. Once there, the inmates take part in daily classes at the prison. One of those former inmates is Otis Banks, who served in the National Guard before being convicted of armed robbery and kidnapping. He served 15 years in prison after his conviction.
“I didn’t have to do what I did, but we all make bad choices at times,” we have to live with those choices,” Banks said, reflecting on his past.
Now that he’s out of prison for nearly a year, he has a car, an apartment and a good paying job. Banks describes himself as a devout Christian and said he feels he has a new lease on life after his experience.
“It was hard for me to acquire my social security card or a drivers license or an ID and you understand that you need that to even find a job,” Banks said. “It was so many people that was going out of their way to make sure that I had these items. The program is truly a blessing.”
Banks said the other inmates in the program value their experiences because it offers them another shot at life beyond prison walls. Although some of his former prison mates will never be released, Banks said a sense of camaraderie still existed within the special wing they were assigned to.
According to a spokesperson for MDOC, the program will continue to be administered at the Central Mississippi Correctional Facility. Hawkins said she hopes to have 60 veterans enrolled in the classes in Mississippi by the end of the year.