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Pride in Service

A series of flags hover above the entrance of a housing unit at Saginaw Correctional Facility. Army. Navy. Marine Corps. Coast Guard. Air Force. Representing each branch of the military, the flags mark the facility’s new unit dedicated to veterans, who served honorably, though later missteps landed them in prison. It is the first of its kind in Michigan. “You can see a sense of pride in these men,” said Saginaw Correctional Facility Warden Thomas Winn. The unit is designed to meet the needs of military veterans and address common issues they may face, like Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. It includes other reminders of service. Military-themed murals stretch along the walls inside, and a U.S. flag flies atop a lighted flagpole in the yard nearby. The facility held a flag-raising ceremony to officially open the new unit in May, which Winn said drew emotional responses from some prisoners. “They all feel privileged and honored to be there,” Winn said. “They want to do well. They’ve served honorably and now, for some reason, they are incarcerated.” Through the new unit, the facility hopes to create a PTSD support group for veterans, host guest speakers to discuss veteran-related topics, increase access to necessary veteran information and facilitate video appeal hearings with Veterans Affairs for claims. Prisoners in the unit are also expected to receive assistance with access to military health and service records, filing disability claims, upgrading their discharge status for Veterans Affairs purposes and transitioning to veterans’ services upon release. Plans are in the works to start a Stiggy’s Dogs training program, as well. The program would allow incarcerated veterans to train service dogs for veterans in the community. Discussion to create the dedicated veterans unit began in December when Michigan Department of Corrections Director Heidi Washington and Deputy Director Ken McKee approached Winn with the idea. The facility, which is located near the Aleda E. Lutz Veterans Affairs Medical Center in Saginaw, is already a hub for incarcerated men who need care and assistance provided by the VA. That made it a natural fit for the first housing unit dedicated to incarcerated veterans in the state. Michigan is the 14th state in the country to have such a unit. Though the facility is working hard to make sure the unit addresses the specific needs of incarcerated veterans, they are still learning what those needs are, said Winn, who is a 27-year veteran of the U.S. Army himself. “We’re finding different things as we go along,” he said. “We’re building the plane as we fly it.” The department identified about 2,000 prisoners across the state with a record of military service and has been working to reach out to those individuals to gauge interest in, and to see if they are qualified to participate. Incarcerated veterans cannot join the new unit if they were dishonorably discharged, or otherwise released from service for poor conduct. The unit currently includes almost 100 prisoners, and it will house 240 when it is at capacity, which Winn hopes to reach by the Fourth of July. Facility leaders hope housing incarcerated veterans together will foster a sense of pride and unity, and prisoners will hold themselves, and each other, to higher standards to conduct themselves honorably. “They have a vested interest in (the unit),” said Prison Counselor Frank Szostak. The facility is already seeing some reductions in misconduct tickets. “The fact that they are being recognized makes them feel special,” Szostak said. “We say, ‘Yes, you may have made a mistake, but first and foremost, you are a veteran. They have a lot of pride in their service.”