Pod members can wear Soldier On t-shirts over their uniforms and they get extra time out of their cells. The jail recently started a job program that allowed one prisoner to earn thousands of dollars working at a local quarry at full pay.
“It’s still jail,” Apple said. “But we want to help them let their guard down a little bit and trust us as we want to trust them.”
The most important piece of the puzzle might be what happens after the veterans are released. Some end up in Soldier On housing; others are followed by caseworkers to make sure they see their probation officer, get drug and alcohol treatment, and have a ride to job interviews.
“Your traditional inmate would get released and get a bus token and say ‘See ya later,’ and more times than not they end up coming back, which drives that recidivism rate right back up,” Apple said.
The pod has room for 30 veterans. Some have spent years in the military; others only weeks. Some have been in trouble just once or twice, while others have rap sheets far longer than their military history.
Charles Brown, 67, estimates he’s spent 22 years of his life locked up. Jail officials said he was one of the more troublesome inmates during past stays; since he’s been in the pod, after yet another drug arrest, he’s been a model prisoner.
“This is like basic training all over again,” Brown said.
Brown was in the Air Force for just five months during the Vietnam War before getting a family-related discharge, but says he was haunted by his time working in a base morgue. Despite the brevity of his military stint, he said he’s bonded with other pod members in ways he did not in the general population.
“We all have something in common besides the criminal element,” he explained.
The Albany County pod eschews military-style activities, but other veteran units around the country have incorporated the trappings of the armed services.
In Florida, which opened dorms at five sites in 2011 to accommodate about 400 men and women, inmates paint patriotic murals and can participate in an honor guard. Washington state paired up one of its three sites with the Brigadoon Service Dogs training program; the inmates built dog houses decorated with military insignia.
Florida Department of Correction
The Arizona Corrections Department established a work program at a local veterans cemetery and prepares special meals for Veterans Day and Memorial Day. It also opened a veterans’ garden where inmates are working to create a certified way-station for migrating monarch butterflies.
Deputy Warden Dionne Martinez said that 50 inmates have been released since their pod opened a year and a half ago; officials know of only one who has ended up back in custody. Now they are trying to start a program for women.
In Albany, the veteran pod often has unfilled cells. The sheriff wants to offer counties from around the state the opportunity to send veterans to do their time in the Soldier On pod.
The jail has 1,040 beds overall and is one of the largest in the state due to expansion during the crack cocaine explosion of the 1980s and a lock-’em-up approach to drug offenders, Apple said.
“I had that mentality myself,” he added. “But sooner or later, you realize we are not winning the war. We’ve got to do things differently.”