A group of incarcerated veterans at Stafford Creek Corrections Center now have a way to decompress, while putting their leadership skills to good use, thanks to the American Legion.

The American Legion granted Stafford Creek a permanent charter in October 2019 to form a post inside the correctional facility. This makes Stafford Creek the first correctional facility in the state of Washington to have an officially chartered American Legion post. Veterans in the group are planning a ceremony to mark the occasion in January 2020.

“It gives us an outlet to be part of something positive while engaging with men who have also been in the service,” said 51-year-old inmate Gary Packer. “A lot of us when we come to prison, we’re forgotten. I did serve my country and this lets us know that we’re not forgotten. To have something like this here is very humbling.”

Packer, who served in the U.S. Air Force from 1987-89, is one of the inmates who petitioned the American Legion to start a post at the facility. He serves as the post’s vice coordinator. He spends a lot of time introducing other incarcerated veterans to American Legion services.

The American Legion is the largest wartime veterans’ service organization in the country. Established by Congress in 1919, the organization has more than two million members and 12,000 posts in local communities. Members would later go on to write the first draft of the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, also known as the G.I. Bill. The organization supports community youth mentorship programs. Additionally, it has members who help veterans file benefits claims with the United States Department of Veterans Affairs.

Incarcerated veterans at the correctional facility started holding American Legion meetings in early 2019 after obtaining a temporary charter. About 15-20 veterans initially began attending the meetings. Now about 40 incarcerated veterans are involved in American Legion activities, according to prison officials.

They hold meetings once a month. Here, incarcerated veterans practice American Legion rituals like posting of colors, reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and setting up a POW/MIA table to honor fallen veterans. They discuss current events and follow congressional bills related to veteran’s issues. The American Legion also has a couple of servicemen volunteers in the community who come to the facility monthly to help veterans with their benefits claims.

The veterans in the group also held a fundraiser earlier this year for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Seattle. Each participant donated part of the money they earned from their jobs over several months to raise $460. Per Department of Corrections policy 700.100 (pdf), most class III jobs don’t exceed $2.40 per hour.

Many of the veterans who attend the meetings at Stafford Creek also live in the prison’s veteran pod. Veteran pods are mission-specific housing units for incarcerated veterans. To be eligible to live in the veterans pod, an individual needs to have served in the military, not have a dishonorable discharge status and no major infractions for six months. The Department of Corrections has about 1,200 incarcerated veterans living among its 12 prisons. Stafford Creek, along with Coyote Ridge Corrections Center in Connell, have veteran’s pods.

Stafford Creek officials say this type of specific housing contributes to the agency’s mission of improving public safety by positively changing lives.

A U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs report found more than half of justice-involved veterans have mental health issues such as PTSD, depression or high anxiety, and/or substance abuse disorders.

Sarah Sullivan, a correctional unit supervisor at Stafford Creek, says the veteran-centered programing like the American Legion and being in the company of other veterans helps address challenges to which incarcerated veterans are prone.

“What I’ve witnessed is a sense of belonging and being part of a group that seeks purpose,” Sullivan said. “Having veterans living in the same area allows community organizations with veteran resources an easier way to connect with incarcerated veterans.”

Mission-specific housing, such as the veterans’ pod, can contribute to facility safety. To live in a veterans’ pod, residents are required to adhere to code of conduct, which is a motivator to remain infraction-free, Sullivan added.

Packer says the American Legion has not only changed his life, but the lives of others. He’s been serving a life without parole sentence since 1999 for a murder conviction. He knows he can’t undo his crime. But he’s grateful to have the American Legion to keep others who will complete their sentence from coming back to prison.

“Most of us got here (prison) because of being a selfish individual,” Packer said. “I’ve been helping myself by helping others. I realize the world doesn’t revolve around you and you can give back and help the person behind you. Nobody understands a veteran like another veteran, and this is like a safe haven for them. They come here and they can just be themselves. They can vent, they can talk. It’s something in prison that is a rarity.”