Jail program is helping veterans turn their lives around

BILLERICA, Mass. — They served their country and now they're serving time. Some veterans are having problems adjusting back into society and are finding themselves on the wrong side of the law.

A special unit inside the Middlesex County Jail and House of Correction is offering these men a chance at getting their lives back in order.

This is HUMV, the Housing Unit for Military Veterans. It’s located in a section of the Old Middlesex Jail in Billerica.

The walls are covered with patriotic paintings and it’s set up like military barracks, with bunk beds down the middle. The 22 veterans currently in the unit all live here together.

Making HUMV more than just a housing unit

“Being in general population and going to the camaraderie of fellow veterans, you don't have to watch your back, you don't have to worry about jail house politics,” said John Miller, a Navy veteran and former HUMV inmate.

Now outside these walls, Miller could reflect on where things went wrong.

"Honestly I don't think I ever fully adapted back to civilian life. Once I got used to military life, that's all I really knew," said Miller.

Almost three years ago, Miller was arrested on gun charges. He was identified as a potential candidate for HUMV by Veteran's Services Coordinator Paul Connor.

"My main goal isn't just getting guys out as quickly as possible. Our main goal is to set them up for success so they don't come back," said Connor.

Like many of the officers and staff inside HUMV, Connor is a veteran.  He says having that shared experience of serving in the armed forces creates a better environment for the inmates.

"They will let their guard down. A lot of these guys have mental health issues, substance abuse issues. So, if somebody is having a bad day, they can't just go and shut themselves off and go into their cell. They have somebody on their left and right to help them deal with it,” said Connor.

Creating the unit was a 'no-brainer'

"I get moved every time I see this. It was painted by an inmate," said Sheriff Peter Koutoujian, as he points to a painting of a kneeling soldier.

Koutoujian opened the unit in January 2016 and said starting the program was a no-brainer. When he became sheriff six years ago, he discovered that inmates were responsible for self-reporting if they were veterans. After doing an audit, they found they were housing about 60 percent more veterans than originally thought.

He used those numbers to justify creating the HUMV program.

"We're here to treat them all to help them all because if they were willing to lay themselves on the line for us, we owe this to them," Koutoujian said.

Over 150 men have gone through HUMV and the results have been positive. The majority of inmates that were in the unit more than a month have stayed out of trouble. Since it's the only program of its kind in the state, dozens of veterans from across Massachusetts have been transferred to the unit. Veterans from every branch of the military are welcome in the unit.

What also makes HUMV unique is that it includes sentenced inmates along with prisoners awaiting trial.  Some of the men that have passed through the program have service dating back to the Vietnam War.

“It doesn't cost us a lot of money and gives us a great deal of satisfaction and pride in knowing that we're doing something important,” said Koutoujian.

And the support continues outside the jail. When John Miller left HUMV three months ago, it was Connor who helped get him a job.

"It's weird being up here and not being on the other side of those gates. I still feel bad for the guys in the HUMV unit, but hopefully they're taking advantage of it so they can be standing where I am,” said Miller.