HOUTZDALE — Several high-ranking state military officials visited the State Correctional Institution at Houtzdale on Wednesday to tour the prison’s Veterans Service Unit.
Pennsylvania’s adjutant general and head of the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs Maj. Gen. Tony Carrelli and Command Sgt. Maj. Harry Buchanan, the PA National Guard’s senior enlisted leader, were among the honored guests.
The Veterans Service Unit at SCI Houtzdale, which opened in May 2016, is one of just three in the state. The unit exists to aid veterans with their reentry into society and to connect them with the benefits they have earned as a result of their service. The ultimate goal is to reduce the possibility to reoffend rate among veterans.
SCI Houtzdale Superintendent Barry Smith said the primary qualification to enter the VSU is a DD 214 form, which verifies military service. Smith added that the unit is occupied primarily by inmates within 36 months of their minimum sentence.
“When veterans take advantage of their benefits, their success rate of reentry is higher,” Smith said.
Chris Reed, the Facility Veterans Coordinator, was instrumental in getting the program up and running. He said it is beneficial for the high-ranking officials to visit and see what this population of “forgotten veterans” is doing.
“These veterans probably need more help than any other,” Reed remarked. “The effort should always be on the next guy leaving.”
The VSU started with approximately 30 inmates and has continued to grow in the past year and a half. Currently, 132 veterans are housed within the unit and there is room for up to 194. Every branch of the military is represented in the unit.
While many of the veterans were already at SCI Houtzdale at the outset of the program, there have been several prisoners who have been transferred to the VSU after hearing of the success of the unit. The VSU houses approximately 45 percent of the veterans in the entire facility.
According to Veterans Service Unit Manager Craig Petulla, the program is designed to assist the incarcerated veterans community with fulfilling their reentry needs. He identified those needs as things such as employment, housing, healthcare, and treatment.
Inmates in the VSU have opportunities each month to hear from outside agencies who may be able to help the veterans meet those needs upon their release. Agencies such as the Office of Vocational Rehabilitation, Altoona VA, DuBois Vet Center, and Tomorrow’s Hope in Beccaria Township, frequently present to the veterans in the unit.
Petulla said there has not been any behavioral issues in the unit since established. He is encouraged by the attitude of the inmates and their enthusiastic use of the program.
“The biggest thing I see is a desire to make things as a whole successful,” Petulla noted. “Constantly looking to enhance programs.”
Petulla added that through the program, 42 jobs have been created for inmates. This gives the veterans an opportunity to be meaningfully employed while still in prison. Jobs include roles such as newsletter writer, motivational speaker, and technology lab assistant.
An inmate named Gary spoke highly of the VSU and the assistance it provides veterans at SCI Houtzdale. He said it is a chance for veterans to help other veterans, which can be very encouraging.
“There’s a camaraderie with the vets being together and that produces a spirit that’s helpful in the reentry process,” Gary said.
Gary, who served in the U.S. Army, is a member of the blue platoon — a group of hand-picked individuals who support the staff with reentry. While the blue platoon are the primary facilitators in the program, most have more time left on their sentence than others in the VSU. According to Petulla, this allows the blue platoon to focus on pouring into members of the red and white platoons — inmates closer to their release date.
Inmate Gary is also the VSU program coordinator. In this role, he trains peer facilitators, develops and implements new programs, and even coordinates visits from outside agencies to assure things run smoothly.
For Gary, and others like him, their roles within the VSU help give meaning to their time behind bars.
“There’s a tremendous sense of purpose. Being incarcerated, it can be hard to find,” Gary said with a smile. “It helps guys improve their quality of life and prepare for reentry.”
Maj. Gen. Carrelli had heard many great things about the VSU and said he had to come see it for himself. After witnessing the operations and talking with staff and inmates, Carrelli said he was very impressed.
“Just because they’re housed here doesn’t mean they’re not entitled to their benefits,” Carrelli declared. “They’ve really built something great here.”
Carrelli said the VSU at SCI Houtzdale could serve as a model for others — and, in fact, it already is.
Superintendent Smith said officials from the National Institute of Corrections have visited and are now using the Houtzdale unit as an example for other veterans units across the nation.