It’s a tidy cellblock. You might even say shipshape.
Patriotic murals decorate clean, white walls. The blue Navy flag hangs next to the red Marine Corps banner.
And inmates at the veterans unit of the Vista Detention Facility — a county jail — sit politely to hear a message that just might change their lives.
“We don’t want to see you come back here. You can do it. Each one of you is smart enough and disciplined enough. You’re veterans, and you’re something special,” said Albert Slater, a retired Marine lieutenant colonel and volunteer with the nonprofit group American Combat Veterans of War.
Then Slater asked each of the 32 incarcerated veterans to raise a hand.
“When you came into the military, you vowed to put your life on the line to protect the United States,” he said. “I want a vow from you today that you’re not going to come back to this f—kin’ place.”
A cheer — “Oo-rah!” — came back from the inmates.
San Diego County’s veterans-only jail unit is a fairly new experiment in harnessing the memory of military service to put convicts back on the crime-free path. Launched in November, the unit’s success has prompted the sheriff’s department to open a second one later this fall at the Vista jail.
The San Diego Association of Governments is gearing up to study the unit’s track record, thanks to a $334,000 grant from the National Institute of Justice.
Inmates in the Veterans Moving Forward Program get an intense slate of county-provided classes on substance-abuse prevention, career planning and anger and stress management.
But sheriff’s officials said community volunteers, such as the Oceanside-based American Combat Veterans of War, play a key role in why the veterans unit appears to be working.
“An important piece for anyone in custody is for it to be recognized that you have self-worth and what you do with your life matters,” said Christine Brown-Taylor, re-entry services manager for the sheriff’s department.
“All the groups that come in, they don’t treat them like inmates. They are treating them like another human being,” she said. “That’s very powerful.”
Law-enforcement and justice programs focused on veterans are on the ascent nationally, a response to the 2.2 million service members who took part in the post-9/11 wars.
Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder are twice as likely as other veterans to be arrested for crimes, according to research cited by SANDAG. However, other factors, such as growing up in a violent home and a history of substance abuse, also play a role in that equation.
San Diego County launched a veterans court, one of a handful in the state, in February 2011. It allows first-time and nonviolent offenders with military-related mental-health problems to get treatment instead of certain incarceration, along with the possibility of eventually having their records cleared. The first vets court opened in Buffalo, N.Y., in 2008.
The all-vets jail unit is a more recent addition to the national scene.