Enrollment numbers continue to climb; outside groups share resources

By Krissi Khokhobashvili, OPEC Public Information Officer

Photos by CDCR Photographer Eric Owens

An unusual group of veterans is growing at California State Prison-Solano (SOL), as more than 100 inmates have started gathering on a regular basis to discuss veterans’ issues and prepare for life outside of prison.

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Navy veteran Steve Drown was one of the founding members of the Veterans Group of Solano.

“The main purpose is to have the opportunity for the veterans to get together to discuss concerns,” said Steve Drown, an inmate coordinator for the Veterans Group of Solano.

He said it’s important for veterans to share their experiences, as they face challenges others might not understand. For example, one Vietnam veteran became distressed upon smelling a certain food that brought back memories hard to deal with.

“The other vets talked him down and worked with him,” Drown said. “I can understand, see what he’s going through.”

Drown was one of five inmates who founded SOL’s inmate veteran group in 2007. The group was active until last year, when staff sponsor David Van Bemmell passed away. The veterans’ group faded until the beginning of 2014, when CDCR Office Assistant Tami Miles was asked to bring it back.

“I am proud to hold this position,” shared Miles, who serves as secretary to two Level II CDCR captains. “My late father was a veteran, so I have a personal connection to them.”

By the time the re-formed group held its quarterly meeting in May, 114 inmate veterans had signed up to be a part of it. Miles said the next step is to establish a sub-group for veterans with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

“It’s just awesome to watch them help each other out,” Miles said. “I’m proud to be a sponsor. I know my father is looking down at me going, ‘There you go girl, – do it!’”

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Vietnam veteran John May, who served in the Army from 1966-1969, asks representatives from a nonprofit veterans’ services group about resources available to recently paroled veterans.

While peer support and counseling are big parts of the group’s mission, so too are community resources veterans can use when they are released.

At the quarterly meeting, representatives from local veterans’ service organization Community Action North Bay were on hand to share information for veterans soon to return to their communities.

“I thank you all for your service,” said Executive Director Ruth Matz. “You’ve done a lot for your country, and it’s our turn to serve you.”

Matz and CAN-B Board Chairman Mark Corioso discussed veterans’ programs available both locally and throughout the state, including housing assistance, disability and medical benefits, pensions, rental assistance and even supplemental food programs.

Veterans’ issues are important to Corioso, who worked with numerous veterans during his career as a corrections counselor at SOL. A veteran parolee with a support system in his or her community is less likely to re-offend.

“It is in everyone’s best interest that you are successful once you leave here,” Corioso told the group.

The group is also a way for inmates from diverse backgrounds to interact, resulting in acceptance of different races, religions and ages.

“The veterans group seems to bring all races together,” said Army veteran Darryl Chatman. “We all have something in common.”

Navy veteran Richard Connick founded the veterans’ group along with Drown and other veterans in 2007. He said that his years of learning about veterans’ concerns and resources available have given him a dream for life on the outside: He wants to start a veterans re-entry facility in his native Kern County.

As Chatman pulled out his trumpet, the veterans bowed their heads in reverence, the notes of “Taps” sounding through the room.

“This program to me is second to none,” Connick noted. “We know what we’ve been through. We know what we stood for.”

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More than 100 veterans have signed up for the inmate veterans group, with more showing interest every day.