AUGUSTA — Joseph Harmon, of Auburn, enlisted in the military immediately after high school, hoping for a better life.

“There was nothing but drugs and trouble for me if I stayed here,” he said. “I figured the best thing to do would be to get the hell out of here.”

But 12 years later, Harmon, 30, an Army veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, is struggling with substance abuse after initially taking prescription medication for a hand injury he sustained during his deployment. He was arrested and charged in March with drug trafficking.

“It’s kind of a messed up thing to say, but going to jail was probably the thing that saved me from overdosing on drugs and actually dying from it,” he said.

The former sergeant is awaiting trial in a cell block in Augusta that exclusively houses other military veterans. It’s a two-year-old initiative at Kennebec County Correctional Facility aimed at treating military service-related problems that have contributed to the inmates’ arrests.

For the past two years, male military veterans who are either awaiting trial or serving a sentence can apply to be housed with other veterans in a 12-person block at Kennebec County jail.

The program is also open to female veterans, who are housed together, but in a separate area of the jail. They have access to all the programs the men in the 12-person block do.

Application is open to any inmate in the state who has served in the military — either awaiting trial or serving a sentence.

The jail also offers group programs for veterans designed to address problems such as post-traumatic stress, substance abuse, mental health conditions, anger management and strained personal relationships.

Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty, a retired Army master sergeant who volunteered for a tour in Iraq and taught at West Point for three years, started the program in July 2011. He said the initiative is part of his patriotic duty to rehabilitate veterans.

“I really feel like when the nation goes to war, we can wave our flags and say, ‘Go get ’em boys,’ but we then have a moral duty to assist them in their transition back,” Liberty said.

While there is not any recent state or national data available on whether the numbers of incarcerated veterans are increasing, Liberty said he thinks it’s a silently growing population in Maine. He is concerned that as more soldiers return home as U.S. military efforts in the Middle East wind down, an increasing number of them are breaking the law and going to jail.

Even so, national data says military veterans aren’t jailed as often as the rest of the population. Veterans are incarcerated at about half the rate of the non-veteran population — 6.3 per 1,000 vs. 13.6 per 1,000, according to a 2011 study by the U.S. Department of Justice. Veterans make up about 10 percent of the nationwide population with criminal records, according to the study.

The veterans block is the latest Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office program designed to reduce the recidivism rate — the rate those convicted of crimes are convicted again.

Liberty said inmates who are veterans do not get special treatment, but they get different forms of treatment to address needs specific to their military background.

He said his office has a “purpose-driven incarceration” philosophy — its goal is to not only address immediate public safety concerns by arresting and detaining offenders, but to also address problems that contribute to re-offending and eventually reduce the amount of people being repeatedly arrested for the same crimes.

“The philosophy of ‘purpose-driven incarcerated’ means we ask, ‘Why are people here?’ In this population, it’s a result of trauma that was sustained in service to our country,” Liberty said.

Reducing the rate of re-offending would reduce costs, and Liberty said it would mean they’ve helped people point their lives in a better direction. Most of the veterans in the block have a history of substance abuse, a problem Liberty said is a “tough nut to crack” and typically involves a long struggle and relapses.

State Board of Corrections Chairman Mark Westrum said he commends Liberty for the veterans block initiative, which he said fits with the board’s goal of reducing the recidivism rate in Maine.

Westrum said it’s important that the state’s jails have programs addressing the specific things that contributed to an inmate’s arrest.

“It’s what all jails need to be moving toward, or we will never ever end the cycle of recidivism,” Westrum said.

Keeping the Kennebec program running is not easy. The jail’s financial resources from the county and state for programs continues to dwindle, and Liberty said his staff is increasingly stretched thin.

“Morally, I can’t just walk away. I can’t say, ‘I know you’re broken and I know it’s a result of your service but you’re on your own,'” he said.

A call to action

A few years ago, Liberty noticed several high-profile deaths in the area involving veterans.

In May 2010, Liberty’s friend, Robert Worthley, a Winslow man and Vietnam veteran with PTSD, jumped out of a moving car and died. In December 2010, James Popkowski, a distraught and disabled veteran of the war in Afghanistan, was fatally shot by a Maine warden outside the Togus veterans hospital after threatening to kill its director.

In November 2011, an Army Ranger suffering from combat stress, Justin Crowley-Smilek, moved aggressively with a knife toward a Farmington police officer, who shot and killed him.

“When all this occurred, it seemed obvious to me that we need to do something,” Liberty said.

The Kennebec County jail veterans block is coupled with the veterans court, a program that operates in Kennebec County Superior Court and is overseen by Justice Nancy Mills.

The district attorney’s office, Crisis and Counseling Centers, Maine Pretrial Services, and other groups work with the veterans to create treatment plans. The veterans enter a guilty plea to the offenses and regularly report to the court to update on the status of the plan. If they are successful in carrying out their treatment plan they get a best-case scenario sentence, or if they fail they receive a possibly more lengthy sentence than if they attended regular court.

The combined veterans program highlights a growing national criminal justice trend to address the root causes of criminal actions that seem to stem from the stresses of war. The movement has roots in 2008 with an experimental veterans court in Buffalo, N.Y., which was similar in design to drug courts, according to published news reports. The court reported big success and reported no recidivism after two years running, compared to the national average of 40 percent for reoffending.

More than 50 such courts have since been created across the U.S., according to Liberty and news reports.

There are at least four other states with jails and prisons that have veteran-specific housing blocks, all formed within the last two years, including Georgia, Florida, Ohio and Virginia. Corrections staff reported improved behavior and less recidivism within that part of the inmate population.

Suffering in silence

Harmon, who has been in the Kennebec veterans block for about a month, said he has already noticed it is easy to talk with the other veterans about similar experiences with the military and substance abuse.

“We end up talking about stuff because we’re all here in the same parameter of problems that we’ve been experiencing since we’ve returned home. It’s good to be able to reflect on some of the problems that we’re having together,” he said.

Liberty said one of the reasons for housing veterans together is to encourage them to talk about their trauma, share knowledge about resources and mentor each other on coping mechanisms.

It’s important, he said, for veterans to have these conversations as one of the first steps in rehabilitation progress, even though that often means fighting a military instinct to quietly and privately deal with pain.

“There is a culture of suffer in silence. You suck it up and take the pain,” Liberty said. “That’s a behavior that serves us well in combat, but when you get out, that mentality unfortunately continues to be adopted.”

Other veterans in the block agree they connect with each other, even if they served in different branches of the military, places and times.

Corrections Officer Shay Freeman, who works in inmate programming in the jail, said the veterans get along better when housed together.

“They know better than to ask someone, ‘Have you ever shot anyone?'” she said.

Anthony Gerard Mattia, 27, a former Army explosives technician who won two Purple Hearts, said he and others veterans at the jail all are trying to get back on track.

“Nobody wants to get in a fight. Nobody wants to get in trouble. We all have something to lose and the only reason we have something to lose is because they’re giving us the opportunity to get our lives back,” he said.

Todd McCrary, 23, the youngest veteran in the block, said he trusts the veterans more than the other inmates when he was in a medium security block in Androscoggin jail.

“In regular jail, they can be your best friend, but it’s still jail. They can screw you over just like that,” he said. “Here we don’t do that. It’s better cohesion. We know everyone is stressed out so we try to talk it out and look out for each other.”

Programs that heal

They are working to get their lives back through the help of the programs offered to the inmates, including issues of better decision making or work readiness.

Sgt. Alan Gregory, a veteran and shift supervisor at the jail, teaches a popular fly-tying class on Tuesdays. One of his goals is to teach the veterans to concentrate on a task. Drug cravings, he said, only last for a few minutes and fly-tying is a way they can divert their attention and cope with withdrawal.

He said a learning a new skill can instill a sense of pride.

At one class, Gregory told the veterans he constantly thinks about fly-tying and loves the fact that it is a lifelong learning experience.

“It’s the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning,” he said.

One veteran in attendance, Jared Small, 37, of Waterville, nodded in agreement while concentrating on the copper wire he was winding around the fish hook.

“It’s a habit and it’s legal,” he said quietly to himself, and smiled.

McCrary said the class is one of his favorites.

“It’s not about making fishing baits,” he said. “It’s really about concentrating on something and making a product. It’s more about focusing on that thing than about everything that’s going on with your case or jail or your life or missing your family. It just lets you escape.”

Along with a focus on veterans programs, Liberty said the sheriff’s office frequently hires veterans as deputies and corrections officers — nearly one-quarter of all 100 employees at the sheriff’s office or jail.

Since 2010, 10 employees of the sheriff’s office have served overseas while with the department.

The inmates agree it makes a difference to have veteran corrections officers, who are identified by a pin on their uniform indicating they served.

Harmon said he noticed the correction officers in Kennebec County jail manually open the door locks instead of using the automatic locks, which loudly click open and could sound like gunshots.

“They don’t just barge in on people, knowing that we have needs and PTSD. They have caution and they show respect and we give it in return,” he said.

The inmates and officers address each other with “no, sir” and “yes, ma’am.” The individual cells in the small block are kept cleaner than a typical cell block, with the beds mostly made, though not quite with military precision. The veterans are all quick to point out they’ve been trusted with carpet and the tables aren’t nailed to the floor.

Mattia said he and the other veterans take care of their space and have a level of discipline and respect with the corrections officers because of their military values.

“You learn respect, to take orders, to follow a chain of command. Even though I committed a crime and I’m in jail, I still have that. It was trained into me,” he said.

Mattia said the veteran corrections officers ask them what they can do to help, even recently asking the sheriff if the veteran inmates could wear their dog tags. The request is still pending.

Drug problems emerge

Harmon remembered thinking when he was 18 that the Army offered more options than Maine. He specialized in communications, which “basically meant if it plugged in, it was my fault if it was broken.”

The 9/11 attacks occurred a few months after he enlisted, and in 2003 he was deployed to Afghanistan.

“It was definitely an experience. I got to learn a lot of things and meet a lot of people, and I saw some things I’d rather have not seen, but I’d do it all over again if I had to,” he said.

By that time had started dating his now girlfriend of 10 years, Stephanie Bernier, and it prompted him to move back to Maine for a more stable life.

When he returned, he had already started abusing the prescription medication. He tried to quit but relapsed and relapsed. The two moved to North Carolina and then Texas before moving back to Maine. He said it was harder to stay sober when he moved back to Auburn and was around the same friends he was involved with when he was abusing drugs.

Harmon said he tried to work fixing computers, but couldn’t hold a steady job for two years. He said he started selling drugs to pay for his habit.

“Some people resort to stealing and burglary, but that wasn’t my thing. I suppose I was just trying to honestly make my drug money,” he said.

In March, he was arrested and charged with trafficking scheduled drugs.

Mattia, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan as an explosives technician, said when he tried to transition back to civilian life, “that’s kind of when it went downhill.”

“A lot of stuff happened over there, mentally and physically,” he said. “I started getting put on medication, then I was starting to abuse the medication. Got married, got divorced.”

He said it was hard to adjust to life without the structure of a military schedule and said he battled with depression. He moved back to his home town of Bridgton in 2011 and continued to struggle with relapse until October when he was arrested by the Cumberland County Sheriff’s Office and charged with robbery.

Police said on Oct. 16 Mattia demanded prescription drugs at a Rite Aid Pharmacy on Roosevelt Trail in Naples. About 10 minutes later, he was arrested on Route 11 in Casco.

While in Cumberland County Jail, Mattia said he was mentally preparing to be sentenced to prison in December when he heard about the veterans initiative in Kennebec County. That month he was screened, accepted and transferred to the Augusta jail.

Mattia said that second chance motivated him to make a permanent change in his behavior and use the resources available.

And it worked. Last week, he was accepted into the veteran court and released from jail.

“You’ve got to want to get your life back,” he said. “If you don’t want it, it’s a waste of time.”

Life after jail

The inmates in the veterans block said while their families have been supportive of them since their time of arrest, they feel shame when they think about their families watching them go from the enlisting in the military to finding their way in jail.

Most are from families who have past generations who served in the military, but they are often the first veteran in the family to be arrested.

Mattia said he is close to his extended family, who live in Cumberland County. He said they have remained supportive of him throughout his time in jail.

“None of them have ever been incarcerated, so I’m kind of like the black sheep of the family,” he said.

He said he is thankful to have his family fully support him, but doesn’t want his niece and nephew to come visit.

“They’re at that age where if they come in and see me like this, they won’t forget that. I don’t want them to see me like this,” he said.

Mattia plans to live somewhere other than his home town because he doesn’t want to fall back into old habits with the same people.

When Mattia gets out he said his goals are to “stay clean, stay sober, maybe meet a nice girl and start a family. Something like that.”

He said this is the first year since he was 12 years old that he missed hunting season, and he is eager not to miss the upcoming one.

“It makes me want to get out there and live life, you know? My mind kind of races with the things I want to do. Maybe I’ll go fishing with my dad,” he said.

McCrary said he remembers how proud his family was when they saw him graduate from boot camp in California and he said he feels like he let them down.

Still, they have remained “100 percent supportive,” he said, noting his grandmother flew 230 miles and drove to the jail with an aunt to visit him for an hour.

It’s too expensive for most his family to call frequently because they live in Louisiana, but he has a growing stack of letters and photos by his bed.

“I don’t have a record. I’m not a bad person,” he said. “I just need to get shifted in the right direction.”

Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252
[email protected]

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