On the Front Line of Reentry
By Casey Coughlin
Gerry Stribling was former Lead Outreach Worker for the Kentucky branch of the Incarcerated Veterans Transitional Program which was founded by the Department of Labor and operated as a pilot program form 2004-2007. The program featured extensive holistic case management and aided veterans make a successful transition from prison. Out of the seven locations throughout the country that hosted the program only three were deemed successful, Kentucky seeing a drop in their veterans’ recidivism rate to a mere 15%. Stribling, a former Marine himself, has gone onto working with an agency for the homeless and is currently starting up a life coaching business. He is author of two books, “Buddhism for Dudes” and “Confessions of a Buddhist Gunslinger.” His blog can be found at www.buddhismfordudes.blog.com.
COUGHLIN: Tell our readership a little about the Incarcerated Veterans Transitional Program and what factors differentiated Kentucky’s program from the others?
STRIBLING: There were seven Incarcerated Veterans Transitional Programs (IVTP) across the country; here in Kentucky was one of the most successful ones. But other IVTP’s ran into a variety of problems. We found that the difference here in Kentucky was we had our prison systems working with us from the design phase on. The staff from the 12 Kentucky prisons were pretty much told ‘these guys are in here to do some good, co-operate with them in any manner that you can.’ That was really critical in the success of the program.
COUGHLIN: What were the challenges that other programs faced?
STRIBLING: Three of these (programs) were in California, and there was just no cooperation between the entities that were working out there and the systems that they were trying to serve. We met up a couple of times in Denver for conferences and somebody working for California asked me if I could help them. We have been able to develop those relationships locally, but I don’t know if I can help you in California or not. But basically it functioned as a real model of a state prison working with an outside system entity.
COUGHLIN: What specifically made your program so effective?
STRIBLING: As Veterans, we knew that we had a shared culture to tap into. So we were in these prisons, talking to these folks on a real regular basis, we were in and out all the time, recruiting participants and counseling participants and we were able to anticipate their releases. For example about 150 veterans came out of the Kentucky Prison System a year while we were working with them. About 100 of them were at risk for homelessness. So those are the folks that we keyed in on. Initially we just tried our best to eliminate the fear factor. If they were at risk for homelessness we made sure they weren’t homeless when they came out. We established a level of trust with them really early on. ‘You’re a vet, I’m a vet, you know what I am capable of, and I know what you’re capable of. Let’s just work together and work this stuff out.’ Granted that a pretty significant piece of our success is the fact that we weren’t anticipating serving about a 40% population of people 50 and over. Those guys are very unlikely to recommit. It also told us something really illuminating: that is there are a lot of Vietnam Vets in prison. It is the most incarcerated group of veterans in the history of the American Military. Anybody that thinks the War in Vietnam is over has never been in a prison.
COUGHLIN: Do you think your programs use of privet sessions verses group sessions is something that is more beneficial to your clients?
STRIBLING: We did both actually, we met with the bigger groups and informed them about the program, what we were trying to accomplish, who would be eligible. Then the first meeting would always be in a group. Half the prisons already had veteran clubs so that is how we would approach a lot of them. After that we would have brief meetings for groups of people but then we would meet one on one with the folks that were coming out. We tried to meet at least three times with someone that was scheduled for release and try and get to know them well. Do an assessment as to what their needs are and then do our best to make those needs were met and lined up prior to their release.
COUGHLIN: Is there a correlation between when someone is discharged from the service and when they are offending?
STRIBLING: We didn’t see a lot of that but you have to remember too that it started in 2004, which is just a year after the Iraq War started, so we haven’t seen a lot of that. We heard about the guys that committed crimes subsequent to discharge are still in the middle of everything and are no where close to being released. We heard interesting stories like a sergeant from Campbellsville, who went out and actually went out and robbed a bank then turned himself in order to not have to go back to Iraq.
COUGHIN: The program ended in 2007 and it was obviously a tremendous success so why was it not continued?
STRIBLING: Because five out of the seven IVTP’s failed and they rechanneled the money back into its original purposes.
COUGHLIN: Has your program been a model to other parts of the country?
STRIBLING: Not that I am aware of. In Kentucky the money was rechanneled and I went ahead and left the program at that time.
COUGHLIN: I also noticed in your report that a huge part of humanizing these men was as soon as they set their foot out of the prison door their case manager shakes their hand and thanks them for their service. What is the impact of acknowledging that?
STRIBLING: That was a piece of it, it was formalized. If they served in country during a time of war, particularly if they are combat and had an honorable discharge, we wanted to acknowledge that. Right at the prison gate, after we had been working with them for a little while seemed like the perfect time to do it. We had a shared culture so we exploited that culture. The comradery that people develop as a result of being in the military has a lot to do with it. The fact that we are all different in the beginning but in the end we are all the same once we are trained and properly motivated. Bonding was important, relationship was everything.
COUGHLIN: Are there any services that you are aware of that are helping people reentering from active duty that you are aware of to help with adjustment and coping?
STRIBLING: That has been a conundrum for our country since the very first wars. You can’t take the Marine out of somebody, you have instilled it and it’s there and now you got to live with it. Now the reality is that the vast majority of military veterans do well. For example only 15% of combat veterans suffer from post traumatic stress disorder.
COUGHLIN: When people approach you about this subject what is one thing they always seem to forget about when it comes to veterans and reentry?
STRIBLING: There are certain aspects of being in the military that sort of predisposes people to maybe not behave as they should. An example being a guy who spent over 24 years in prison in various states mostly for armed robbery, he was a commercial painter by trade and had jobs all over the country. He had this thing inside of him that needed to be satisfied and that was the thrill of potentially being under fire. He kind of got addicted to the violence of Vietnam and he couldn’t put that behind him when he got back. He wasn’t a drug addict or a womanizer; he would just do armed robberies just for the thrill of it.
It’s the same thing when you hear about the Marines who were urinating on the Taliban fighters; I understand that, you have to dehumanize your foe to be able to kill them. You can’t look at them as people, you have to look at them as less than people or you can’t pull the trigger. That’s something folks don’t realize. So we are different in certain ways I guess. It was culturally acceptable for them to slaughter and maim and mutilate and act horrible, it was an expected and rewarded behavior. So you have to keep in mind what we were trained to do on behalf of this country.