Inside Maury Correctional Institution, three dozen convicted felons stand at ramrod attention, each man with his shoulders back and eyes facing front – quiet enough to hear a breath.
A correctional officer counts them as they wait in the doorways of their 11-by-7-foot cells, some of which are decorated with eagles and American flags. Around them, the walls are painted with sergeants’ stripes, boots, helmets and this quote: “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”
In the eyes of the law, these men are burglars, drug dealers – even murderers. But at one time, before they pulled on the drab brown outfits issued to an inmate, they wore the crisp uniform of soldiers and Marines, sailors and airmen. Here, in Green Unit K, pod B, every convict is a veteran.
“I had a grenade blow up by my foot,” said William James, 38, an Iraq War veteran serving 23 years for drug trafficking. “That’s why you see me with a cane.”
The all-veterans’ dorm at Maury Correctional is the only one of its kind in North Carolina, an experiment that groups white-haired men who fought in Vietnam alongside inmates young enough to have served in the wars that followed Sept. 11. Here, in rural Greene County, 80 miles east of Raleigh, the men largely police themselves, fashioning their prison time after the disciplined lifestyle they learned in the military. They sit on a steering committee, organize their own clean-up schedule and – most importantly – counsel each other through the paralyzing episodes of post-traumatic stress disorder.
In a half-year since their unit came together, the inmates in pod B have served without any major infractions. They pass days with their cell doors open. Their counts take three or four minutes – a fraction of the time it takes to log regular inmates – and once it is finished, they shout a loud “Hoo-ah!”
“They’re still inmates,” said Kenneth Lassiter, deputy director of operations for the state Department of Public Safety. “They’re still incarcerated. They’re still heroes, though.”
You get all types of guys in here. We haven’t had a fight since we’ve been in the pod.
William James, Maury Correctional Institution inmate and Iraq War veteran
At last count, the state’s prisons housed 1,944 military veterans – 5 percent of the total population behind bars. Many of those inmates saw combat overseas. Many also have been diagnosed with PTSD and, to the best of the state’s knowledge, few of them received any treatment for it on the outside.
The program at Maury started with a group therapy session between roughly 10 men, many of whom shared the same combat-related mental health issues and found a forum to talk about experiences that still haunted them. The concept grew into full-time housing, where the men could rediscover a sense of self-worth through a buddy system, surrounded by peers who know the best and worst about life in uniform.
“We jumped on it,” said Dennis Daniels, administrator at Maury. “It’s not about what got you in prison. The one thing I tell the veterans is we’re concentrating on that time when you were protecting this country. We’re making these guys feel good.”
One soldier from the original counseling sessions, Andy Koonce II, spreads a collection of photographs from Iraq across a metal table in pod B. He served in the Army there for two years, and in August of 2006, he and fellow soldier were driving a cargo truck along a road to Camp Ramadi.
“All of a sudden, my truck exploded,” said Koonce, 31. “Just kaboom. It felt like a football player just ran into me. I felt like I was flying through space.”
The door on his side wouldn’t open, so he climbed over the console to the driver’s side. “All I could see is flames,” he said.
The truck grew so hot after the explosion that ammunition it carried began to fire. Koonce pulled his friend out of the truck and saw blood pumping out of his side. “He kept saying, ‘Save me, Koonce. Save me.’ I’m shaking.”
Both of them survived. Koonce came away with traumatic brain injury, PTSD and a Purple Heart.
“I suffer from body aches all over,” he said. “I’m afraid of the dark. And being around a lot of people. What really brought it all back was Fourth of July. They shot off a dud, and it scared me so bad I jumped on the ground and cowered.”
Two years ago, jurors in Beaufort County convicted Koonce of statutory rape of a 14-year-old girl. During his trial, Koonce took the stand and denied the charges, and his lawyer made much of his Army record and honorable discharge. But he received a sentence of more than 50 years in prison.
Behind bars, Koonce said talking about his war experiences feels like discussing rocket science nobody understands. Before he moved to pod B, he would dwell on them silently, skipping meals.
But among other veterans, “I feel safe,” he said. “I take naps with my door not locked. I don’t have to worry about people robbing me. Laugh. Smile. I can watch a movie without watching my back.”
Visitors to the veterans’ dorm are handed a 10-point mission statement crafted by the inmates – a list of goals topped by living together in harmony and mutual support. Beyond that, they wish to set up a veterans’ community inside each of the state’s prisons and contact potential employers.
Inside the pod, the inmates rotate through a seven-man committee to hash out their issues and ideas. One possibility they discuss is arranging for a shuttle to the VA Hospital in Durham, where many of them qualify for benefits and could receive more extensive treatment if only they could get there. Meanwhile, Carolyn Lee Witherspoon, the behavioral specialist who helped create their pod, works on connections to veterans groups who can help the men on the outside.
Not long ago, those connections brought a shoebox care package from a group of eighth-graders in Houston, Texas, many of whom had been identified as being troubled within their school. It contained letters, snacks and toiletries, many of which wouldn’t normally be allowed inside an inmate’s pod. These items got a pass.
“These kids had issues,” said James, the veteran-inmate with a cane. “They were selected by their guidance counselor. Each one of us wrote letters saying, ‘We’re in a position to tell you some things.’ You get all types of guys in here. We haven’t had a fight since we’ve been in the pod.”
“We all get together and talk about it,” echoed Napoleon Gyant, 50, an Army veteran serving time for attempted murder. “It doesn’t have to be violent. It’s already bad enough.”
Around the rest of Maury, other inmates are jealous. Daniels, the administrator, jokes, “Should have been a veteran.”
“You have to take an inmate one at a time,” he said. “But I’ve got 36 now who are about good business. And I’m proud of them. I’m proud of them.”