Allegheny County Jail designates cell block for inmates who are veterans
The new veterans pod at the Allegheny County Jail made David Francis feel welcome in a way he didn't experience when returning from Vietnam.
“(The pod) gives veterans hope where there hadn't been any,” Francis said. “We were not liked when we came back from Vietnam. We weren't welcomed in coming home. It wasn't like other wars. So this is a blessing.”
Over the weekend, Francis painted the words of a poem he wrote on the white walls of the vestibule entrance to the pod. It reads: “Veterans are like a ship's vessel, with sails torn from battles. Worn we gather our bits of brokenness and share forgiveness. We're not to blame. There is no shame.”
An American flag and other patriotic images are also painted near the pod's entrance — the work of three inmates over the weekend.
The paintings are the only visual difference between the pod and others in the jail. It consists of two levels of cells in a circle surrounding a common area, where jail and county officials held a news conference Monday.
The difference, though, will be the specialized services offered to veterans, as well as a chance to interact with their fellow veterans on a daily basis.
“We decided we need to do something for the veterans in our facility and prepare them for a successful re-entry into society,” said Warden Orlando Harper, an Army veteran himself.
At least 86 prisons and jails across the country have pods designated for veterans. Many of them have been created in the past five years, according to an Associated Press report in January . Nationally, veterans account for about 8 percent of all inmates.
In preparing to create the pod, jail officials visited the veterans pod at the state prison in Mercer County.
The pod was created in about seven months, said Allegheny County Common Pleas Judge John A. Zottola.
“It's the right thing to do,” said Zottola, one of the judges who runs the county's veterans court. “We serve you because you served us.”
Putting veterans together could increase safety at the jail, Zottola said.
“I've seen veterans call each other out when not doing what they're supposed to do,” Zottola said.
The pod has been up and running for about three weeks, Harper said.
For now, some non-veterans live in the pod, as well. Scott Bowra said he is glad he's one of them.
Bowra's father died from the herbicide Agent Orange while serving in the Vietnam War, when Bowra was just 10 months old, he said.
Although not a veteran himself, Bowra finds it helpful to surround himself with veterans on the pod, he said.
“It helps to talk to veterans, because it helps keep me thinking about him,” said Bowra, who grew up on the North Side. “I started asking, ‘what would my father think of me now?' ”
That thought makes him want to get out of jail and not come back.
The jail currently houses 69 veteran inmates, including one woman, Harper said.
Of those, 34 men are housed in the veterans pod. The remainder are either in maximum security, meaning they can't be in the veterans pod, or they chose not to be, Harper said.
Women veterans will have access to all the same programs and services, even though women are not allowed in the all-men veterans' pod, Harper said.
Placing many of the jail's veterans all in one place makes it easier for organizations to serve them, as well as less costly for the county, officials said.
“We want more veterans assistance programs,” Harper said.
Many have already committed to participate.
The Allegheny Intermediate Unit will offer workforce literacy classes, including help with cover letter and resume writing, according to a county news release. Veterans Administration Veterans Justice Outreach will help the inmates apply for enrollment in the VA health care system, discuss treatment options and legal issues, along with presentations on post-traumatic stress, suicide prevention and job opportunities.
Organizations Soldier On; PAServes; the Veterans Leadership Program; the Duquesne School of Nursing; and Veterans Thinking for Change-Pittsburgh Mercy also have committed to providing services.
Theresa Clift is a Tribune-Review staff writer. Reach her at 412-380-5669, firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @tclift.