Swords To Plowshares Helping Veterans

Jailed veterans look for COVER behind bars

By Lilah Crews-Pless on May 16, 2011

Flickr photo by Niklas Morberg. http://www.flickr.com/photos/morberg/3821226996/

Over the next two weeks, KALW News is bringing you stories from veterans who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thousands are returning home every month, re-entering civilian life – and facing challenges and obstacles all along the way.

This first story takes us to a jail in San Bruno.

Experts estimate that about 20% of new veterans are returning home with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD. Some symptoms of PTSD include erratic driving behaviors, substance abuse, and violence – all actions that can land vets in jail. And that’s the concern: that many new vets will be swept up into the criminal justice system.

In San Bruno, the San Francisco County Jail has partnered with the non-profit Swords to Plowshares to create a wing dedicated solely to veterans. It may be the first in the country. It’s called the COVER project, and the mostly-volunteer staff connects vets to resources, turning their incarceration into rehabilitation. Lilah Crews-Pless has more.

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LILAH CREWS-PLESS: It’s morning at the jail and in the common area, inmates are hanging out, watching TV, and talking. At 9am sharp, the program facilitator, army veteran Erik Camberos, announces it’s time for class.

ERIK CAMBEROS: What’s the name of this class? “Manalive.”

Manalive is one of many classes and workshops the COVER project offers to veterans. A group of about 15 men, all dressed in bright orange, pull plastic chairs into a circle and sit down inside one of the classrooms off the common area.

CAMBEROS: Everyone in here has agreed that they are violent, and that they are willing to stop their violence.

Camberos is trying to stop what he calls a cycle of violence. He says many of the lessons young men learn, like how to fight, need to be unlearned.

CAMBEROS: You were handed a bill of goods that walked us right into this jail, your male role belief system, every decision that you made came from this system right here, your male role belief system.

The so-called “male role belief system” is at the heart of this re-training. COVER says men are taught to be aggressive, never to cry or show weakness, to react when confronted. It’s exactly what makes for a good soldier in the field.

CAMBEROS: Their whole training is about getting rid of any self that you have, so any idea about who you think you are is stripped, and they rebuild you as a superior fighting machine. With that, a person develops another image of who they think they’re supposed to be. Now these guys who are in here have been trained by the military, and now they go back into society with that chip on his shoulder, right? And there is no de-program, which is really, really dangerous.

COVER is all about deprogramming the combat mentality.

CAMBEROS: Where does the work begin in stopping my violence? It’s the moment of my fatal peril, moment of fatal peril. Okay, that’s exactly the moment, let’s put that up there on the board.

Camberos writes “fatal peril” on the big blackboard at the head of the room

CAMBEROS: This moment right here when we’re in the moment of fatal peril? Where talking about that moment of shock? When my male role belief system starts to break down, these belief systems and all the things that I’ve learned on how to be a man, through society’s eyes right? Like what works, what doesn’t work, what makes you a punk, what makes you a sucka, and all the other stuff that’s outside the realm of what it takes to be a man, right?

The men in the room nod their heads. Some have been taking classes like this one for months; others just started.

COVER offers other programs tailored to the vets here too. About 90% of the vets here in COVER have a serious substance abuse problem, and many are here on drug charges so the mandatory drug rehab programs are key. So are job prep classes. It’s a different way of looking at jail time.

SUNNY SCHWARTZ: They’re getting out, they’re all getting out.

That’s what a lot of people forget, says COVER co-founder Sunny Schwartz. Inmates get arrested, go to jail or prison, but they don’t often get the help they need to heal and function on the outside.

SCHWARTZ: We’ve always felt that we have an obligation, a responsibility to return people back to the communities more prepared. To be more pro-social, nonviolent human beings. To use that down time in jail into an institution of change and humanity.

And that’s what makes COVER unique – it uses the down-time in jail as an opportunity to reach vets and give them tools to help them transition back into society while creating community through shared military experiences.

CAMBEROS: Oh there’s a big camaraderie in here. I remember it used to be, “Hey you, in the green,” and in here they say, “Hey you, in the orange.” They’re all a part of the same team.

The COVER program started in June 2010, so it’s too early to talk about success rates, but the program it’s based off is very successful. It’s dramatically reduced recidivism. COVER is also extremely popular – there’s a waiting list just to get in to the program.

John Galvan, an inmate who’s been coming to these classes twice a week for about a month, says that he’s concerned about the new vets that he sees.

JOHN GALVAN: They need to have programs for these young guys outside of jail because if they don’t, they’re gonna end up taking care of them inside of jail. Either help them when they get out or get ready to help them after they do commit whatever crimes they’re going to be committing cause these guys are gonna be coming back big time, in numbers.

Meaning more veterans are coming home every week. Some of them with untreated PTSD. 

GALVAN: You get rage you can’t understand and you can’t control it. When I got arrested I was telling the police, “You need to get me away from this situation. There’s a high potential that I’m gonna do something that’s gonna be really bad." I’m doing jail time right now but I could be doing a lot worse.

The military has basic classes to teach vets skills like building a resume, but there is no training to remove the military mentality. While the COVER program is about rehabilitation, it is also about empowering vets to change while maintaining their dignity.

In San Bruno, I’m Lilah Crews-Pless, for Crosscurrents.

Lilah Crews-Pless is a student reporter at Mills College in Oakland.

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It seems like, as with drug recovery, if you don't have alot of money, you can only get help if you get in trouble first...