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Serving veterans inside York County Prison

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Sitting at painted-steel tables inside York County Prison, nine men wearing orange jumpsuits told a man in a dress suit what they hope to gain from a specialized program for inmates who are United States military veterans.

Most of the nine men served in the United States Army. One served with the National Guard. At least one was a Marine. Many had seen combat.

They told the man in the suit, Ryan Yoder, that they want access to services. One asked about getting a social security card. Another hopes to learn about potential felon-friendly employers.

The prison’s veterans housing, or pod, opened Oct. 2, giving imprisoned veterans their own 2,000-square-foot residential wing. The goal is to connect veterans with critical services on the outside – from employment and education to mental health and basic document-gathering.

While re-entry and rehabilitation programs are offered to all inmates, this is tailored to the prison’s veteran population. The program – possibly the only among the state’s county prisons – aims to meet specific needs of the prison’s veterans to prepare them for a successful release.

Yoder, veterans coordinator for the Pennsylvania Department of Corrections, said the program’s success relies on a genuine staff. Inmates can see through someone simply going through the motions.

Incarcerated veterans are the most neglected veteran population in the country, but not in York County. Our veterans department’s prison outreach twice monthly provides veterans a connection for all benefits they’re eligible to receive. The department, led by director Terry Gendron, processes disability claims, arranges in-prison exams, obtains military records and applies for health care. With veterans’ permission, the department acts as a conduit of information to family members regarding all VA benefit applications.

Military veterans, particularly those who have seen combat, have had trouble living in the prison, said Amber Warfel, veterans coordinator for the prison’s treatment staff who served in the Air Force. They needed a more positive environment, she said, and the veterans-specific housing provides that.

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They can support one another and build a bond only veterans can experience, said Laura Ruhling, counselor at the prison. It also gives the prison staff better access to the veterans.

Genuine support comes from the top.

York County President Commissioner Susan Byrnes visited the veterans at the prison Oct. 3. She shook hands with them, thanking them for their service. She encouraged the nine men take advantage of their opportunities.

These men may have lost their ways in the civilian world, but it doesn’t negate the sacrifices they made for their country.

The veterans housing unit is a special way to honor them for their service, Byrnes said.

“Just because they made a mistake on the outside and had trouble transitioning, doesn’t mean we should turn our backs on them,” explained Yoder. “If anything, that motivates me to provide support to help ensure successful re-entry to live productive lives.”

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