ORLANDO, Fla (Reuters) – Marvin Hurst, 59, makes his bunk with military precision, snaps to attention for the morning flag-raising ceremony and follows orders all day long. But home is no Army barracks.
Hurst, who served in the U.S. Army from 1973-74, is one of 300 prisoners housed in the Florida Department of Corrections’ five new dormitories specifically for U.S. veterans which were officially unveiled on Wednesday.
Corrections spokeswoman Gretl Plessinger said the goal of the veterans’ dorms is to reduce recidivism.
“The more you can group specific inmates who are going down specific paths toward specific goals, the more likely they are to support each other and help each other achieve those goals,” Plessinger said.
The dorms have an unmistakable military feel, decorated by talented inmates with large wall murals of fighter jets and warships along a coastline, a two-story tall American flag and the Iwo Jima Memorial.
Just as in military service, inmates volunteer to participate in the special dorm arrangement. To be admitted, the veterans must have a clean discipline record and be within three years of their release date.
Once in the dormitory, the inmates are required to maintain their bunks and clothing to military standards, keep their discipline record spotless and refrain from using profanity.
Grouping veterans allows prisons to tailor pre-release services to their special needs, such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder counseling, and to familiarize inmates with military benefits and supports available to them on the outside, corrections officials said.
Hurst, who was convicted of burglary and is scheduled for release in 2013, believes the new program will be successful.
“Veterans all have discipline instilled in us, and morals and values that’s been buried for too long for whatever reasons,” Hurst said in a telephone interview from a prison in Milton, Florida.
In the veterans dorm, Hurst said, “We try to put the best foot forward, stay positive, stay focused on what is the end for us. And the end for us is getting out of here and having some tools to take with us where we won’t have to return behind these walls.”
The five dormitories have a capacity of about 400 and are scattered around the state. One, the Lowell Correctional Institution in central Florida, is designated for female veterans.
Overall, the Florida corrections system houses 102,000 prisoners in 63 facilities, and 6,700 inmates have identified themselves as military veterans.
Plessinger said other state prison systems offer various kinds of veterans’ programs but Florida’s new housing arrangement for veterans was unique.
“Veterans learned respect, honor and integrity,” she said. “Housing them together will help them re-learn or remember some of what they’ve forgotten.”
(Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Peter Bohan)
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