It was early morning on Monday—the fog lifting in the salty air and the cries of seagulls echoing over the lap of waves against a rocky beach. Two sea otters tumbled through the water about twenty feet from shore. However, two hundred yards from this idyllic setting, 4,186 men live behind razor wire, granite walls and steel bars.
Approximately 450 of these men are veterans of America’s wars.
On Monday, San Quentin Prison celebrated Veterans Day. The mood on the yard was solemn as inmates stood on a small stage to recite the names of the fallen. But, the atmosphere also felt festive; for many of these men, the occasion was a break in the routine of penal life and a chance to mingle and socialize with guests from outside the prison walls.
Monday was the second annual Veterans Day remembrance celebration initiated by a prison group called Veterans Healing Veterans. This program offers some hope that insight from imprisoned veterans can help those struggling to recover from combat outside the walls. And inmates with roots in Richmond are putting the same principles to use helping those civilian veterans of everyday combat with urban crime and poverty.
Ron Self, the founder of Veterans Healing Veterans, still looks very much like the marine he once was. Well over six feet tall with neatly trimmed hair and dark sunglasses, Self carries himself with such authority it is easy not to notice the blue prison uniform he wears as an inmate. Self served in the Gulf War and “pretty much every conflict between ‘87-‘96.”
Self founded the group because he was concerned about the high rate of suicide among veterans. Two years ago, when he started Veterans Healing Veterans, 18 veterans a day were killing themselves, today that number has jumped to 24 per day. Self pointed out that more veterans commit suicide each year than are killed in combat.
As Self spoke, the litany of names continued in the background, underscoring his words. The inmates recited not only the name of each vet killed in military action; they also read the name of every veteran who took his or her own life.
But Self said he noticed something else; the suicide rate among incarcerated veterans is actually quite low. “Guys in prison are forced to stop and look at the mirror and deal with issues of the past,” he said.
So, Self began a program in which older veterans in prison can help each other and vets outside of prison to come to terms with their post traumatic stress disorder. The aim of the group is to reduce the numbers of vets committing suicide and those coming into prison.
“Here they are incarcerated, locked up away from the rest of world after having defended our country and gone through the horrors and the traumas of war,” said chaplain Susan Shannon, who attends the meeting once a month. “Their intention is not to sulk or feel sorry for themselves or feel isolated, but to help others.”
Once a week on Thursdays, veterans from the community join those inside to talk about everything from military service to childhood abuse. “What it’s like to see a woman and her three kids in a car at a checkpoint get mowed down and killed and realize that they weren’t an enemy combatant. They didn’t have any IEDs in the vehicle. It was just a mother and her kids that didn’t know any better. When you’re on the end of the 50 caliber gun that killed them that has an effect on you,” Self said.
Through narrative therapy—writing and telling their stories—the members of the group process the painful events in their lives and discover they are not alone.
Tony Marquez, a Vietnam veteran who is serving a life sentence under the three strikes law, said the group has helped him to gain empathy for others and understanding of himself. “It’s sad to say, but I didn’t have a lot of concern for people and their feelings.” Marquez shrugged. His gap-toothed smile was humorless. He said he now understands on a deeper level that “it affects more than just yourself when you do a crime.”
Self’s curriculum has relevance beyond the world of veterans. It has been adapted for use by the Richmond Project, an organization started by prisoners from the city of Richmond to help stop the cycle of violence and incarceration.
“PTSD—it’s not just veterans suffering from it. It’s also people in urban communities,” said Vaughn Miles, chairman of the Richmond Project. Miles has a wide smile and white teeth. He laughs easily, but his life has been far from easy. He described abuse in his home, seeing his friends killed in the streets, and taking to the streets himself at young age.
Thanks to Self’s curriculum, Miles has begun to understand that he, like many veterans, is suffering from the psychological injuries of trauma. He sees these events as contributing factors that ultimately led to his committing the crime he profoundly regrets: first-degree murder.
“It’s no excuse,” he said of his background, but understanding the violence that he’s suffered in the context of PTSD has helped him accept responsibility for the violence he has performed.
Self pointed out that veterans have a lot in common with prisoners who have experienced this kind of street violence. “Some people say you can’t compare inmates to our honorable veterans, when in actuality their back histories are almost identical.”
“The streets of Richmond is like a warzone,” Maverick Harrison, another member of the Richmond Project, said. When he was 17, Harrison’s brother was killed. “He was the main source for me of what a man was supposed to be.” Harrison committed a murder robbery and ended up in prison at age nineteen.
Much like the Veterans Healing Veterans group, Miles, Harrison, and about twenty other men from the Richmond Project hope by telling their stories they can keep other young men out of prison. “We don’t want anyone else to be subjected to what we were,” Harrison said.
The treatment for PTSD is relevant for a wide range of trauma—including imprisonment, Self said. “Incarceration syndrome presents identical to PTSD—it feels the same and looks the same.”
Many of the veteran guests from outside the prison expressed an intense sympathy for those inside. “After my first deployment my whole life fell apart,” said Sean Stevens, Marin County’s Veteran’s service officer. Stevens is in the reserves and has served four tours in Afghanistan. “My wife left me. I had two step-kids. All that fell apart. I was angry, upset, and hurt.”
“I will tell you a lot of time a veteran’s come out of deployment, and it’s a fine line between making a left turn and going into prison, or making a right turn and doing the right thing. I very easily could’ve been here.” Stevens’ eyes started to fill with tears. “When I come here, I’m not helping them; they are helping me as well. That’s how that works.”
Many of the other guests who attended the Veteran’s Day event echoed this same theme. “They are real people,” said Emilio Rojas, one of the facilitators for Veterans Healing Veterans. “They are human. I connect with these guys. I am not different from them at all. I’m just luckier.”
As he spoke, the names of the dead continued to echo across the yard.