Incarcerated veterans find community in all military housing unit

Kaylah Jackson
January 30, 2019 - 3:51 pm

(Photo courtesy of Virginia Department of Corrections)

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The “vet dorm” located in the Haynesville Correctional Facility in Virginia, doesn’t appear what you’d imagine jail to look like at first glance. In fact, it sort of looks like military barracks.

The area, which was created in 2012, is affectionately called the "vet dorm" by inmates and prison staff.  It sits nestled in between other pods on the grounds but inside, you’ll find a different population and overall, different mindset from the individuals who live there.

The majority of the population living in the dorm are veterans from all eras and branches of service, including one lone Coast Guardsmen. There is a standard to be upheld: beds are made with 90-degree corners, floors are consistently buffed, and altercations are rare. As the men say, they prefer to handle their disagreements, “in-house.”

We spoke to three veteran inmates who are spending their sentences in the vet’s dorm. Here are their stories.

Malcolm Ruffin, now 54-years-old, didn’t plan on joining the Army but he followed a friend down to military processing and the rest is history.

“I had just finished high school and took a dude to the MEPS station to the take the Army test and the recruiter talked me into taking the test,” said Ruffin. “I just wanted any MOS that would keep me from going to the field.”

(Photo courtesy of Virginia Department of Corrections)

That wish was short-lived. He qualified to enlist as what was a called a 63B-10 at the time, otherwise known as a light wheel vehicle mechanic.

From 1984 to 1986, he served in Germany as a part of a mechanized infantry unit and as Ruffin describes, he “went to the field every 30 days.” As the end of his enlistment was approaching, he had a decision to make—reenlist and move back to the states or stay in Germany as a civilian. He ended up choosing the latter because he loved Europe.

For the next five years, he found work as an assistant manager at an audio equipment store but with issues at home, he eventually decided to fly back to the United States.

“Since my parents and stuff are getting older, decided to come back and spend time for my parents and that didn’t work out too well,” said Ruffin.

Unlike many veterans, finding employment wasn’t an issue for Ruffin. He held several positions in the security and management industry but found the real problem was with controlling his behavior.

“My temper was getting the better of me and I was handling a lot of situations badly,” said Ruffin. “There were several opportunities where I had chances to walk from things and I didn’t take those chances. I allowed the situation to escalate but at the time, I couldn’t see that.”

While he says, none of his family has ever been to jail, his temper and decisions landed him in Haynesville. He’s currently serving a 34-year sentence for 1st-degree homicide and child neglect. But even knowing the nature of his offenses, Ruffin says it has been the vet dorm, not an anger management class that has given him clarity.

"I went through anger management but none of that really addressed the base problems…I’ve learned how to be more patient, I’ve learned that me, as a person, I can’t control anyone else’s behavior. I can only control the things that I do,” said Ruffin. “The only thing that I can control is my response."

The veterans dorm environment allows men like Ruffin to experience military camaraderie again, in a space where people understand each other’s struggles. Ruffin has also taken advantage of the re-integration resources offered by the prison.

He currently is in the culinary arts program, where an outside chef comes in to teach the men about proper cooking techniques and meals. While he says a person loses much of their life while incarcerated, that doesn’t mean someone no longer has a purpose. In fact, Ruffin plans to open up a diner or food truck upon his release.

“The vet dorm does teach you if you’ve done bad things there’s no getting rid of those bad things. You can’t erase your past but you can write a better future,” said Ruffin.

 

 John Barnette comes from a military family. He says his grandfather served in World War Two, so it only made sense for him to enlist. In his eyes, his mistake was not reenlisting.

“I got bad nerve problems and got drinking and started self-medicating,” said Barnette. “Then I got in trouble with bad checks.”

Barnette enlisted in 1988 and served in the U.S. Army’s 10th Mountain Division as an infantryman until 1993. He deployed in support of Operation Desert Storm which is part of where he attributes his post-traumatic stress.

(Photo courtesy of Virginia Department of Corrections)

After first leaving the military, he didn’t want help. He reached out to the VA a few times but upon learning he was recommended for an in-patient program, he steered away from any mental health assistance. Now, he’s serving time in Haynesville for burglary and forgery writing and is expected to be released in February of next year.

“The [vet] dorm gives you a way to ask for help that you wouldn’t or couldn’t, either because of pride or you didn’t know how,” said Barnette. “But it leads you to the right people that can help…you got a circle.”

His circle is full of other veterans, mostly middle-aged who have decided they want to turn their life around. In the dorm, he’s taken advantage of the masonry classes and hopes the prison staff offers resources for truck driving next.

At age 49, Barnette says “I’m done. I’m not coming back.”

 

Coming from a long line of patriotic service members, Stanley Rose kept up the family tradition. At the ripe age of 17, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and took on a food service job. His two years of service were spent at Nellis Air Force Base in Las Vegas where he said he “learned a lot about being responsible”

Now 48, Rose says serving in the Navy was one of the best experiences of his life, primarily because of the people he met.

In an unconventional way, living in the veterans dorm reinforces that comfort for him, one he didn’t find during his military transition. Rose found himself feeling lonely without the family he was used to while in uniform.

“I was shell shocked,” said Rose. “Everybody [in the vet dorm] embraces you, just like boot camp all over again. You can go to any compound and you won’t see anything like this,” says Rose.

He describes the vet dorm as spotless: “there’s an attitude in here I have to have my bed made.”

Being around other like-minded veterans have given what Rose calls a “reboot” to his values.

“It’s just like I never left. It’s a brotherhood,” said Rose. “We joined the military to serve our country and we are proud we all love our country.”

The veteran’s dorm and its resources have allowed Rose to refocus his life. He’s taken advantage of several vocational programs including typing, barbering, masonry, and electrical classes.

Rose wants to recreate the vet dorm environment in a halfway house upon his release. He’s currently serving a 24-year sentence for multiple charges including assault, robbery, and abduction. Like Barnette, he also plans to get his CDL license.

The vet dorm continues to be a space for incarcerated veterans to get a snippet of the military lifestyle so many of them left behind. For the past three years, Virginia has had the lowest recidivism rate among the forty-five states that report their felon attrition rates. Much of the prison staff attribute that record to their facility motto: "Reentry begins on day one of a person's incarceration."

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