Incarcerated vets tend cemetery through state program
09/10/2010
The Capital

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Wearing a neon yellow jumpsuit and a large backpack leaf blower, Frederic Jones smiled Thursday as he cleared debris from the paths of the Crownsville Veterans Cemetery.

Courtesy photo Former Baltimore resident Frederic Jones, 55, is serving 25 years at the Brockbridge Correctional Facility in Jessup for armed robbery. The Navy veteran is now doing yard work at the Crownsville Veterans Cemetery.

Before he was convicted of armed robbery in 1995 and sentenced to 25 years in prison, Jones was a seaman with the U.S. Navy. It didn't matter yesterday that he was toiling under the supervision of a state correctional officer or that he would return that afternoon to the Brockbridge Correctional Facility in Jessup. At that moment, Jones was honoring his fallen brethren.

"This is probably one of the most redeeming things I have done in prison or out," said Jones, one of four inmates - all honorably discharged members of the U.S. military - tasked with helping maintain the cemetery's grounds seven hours a day, five days a week.

"We enjoy being able to give something back," said Jones, 55, formerly of Baltimore.

Public Safety and Correctional Services Secretary Gary D.Maynard touted the work detail Thursday while meeting with a delegation from the United Kingdom. The delegation, which returned last night to London, was in the United States this week to investigate how the British government could better address the needs of its incarcerated veterans.

Maynard, a former brigadier general with the Oklahoma National Guard, noted that the Veteran Cemetery Maintenance Program provides the state's Department of Veterans Affairs with cheap labor while also providing inmates with valuable job skills and experience.

The program also gives inmates a sense of worth and well-being, he said.

"They are preparing the final resting places of their brethren and, theoretically, themselves," Maynard said as the five-person delegation mingled with the inmates, other prison officials and representatives from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

The maintenance program, which started in April 2008 in Crownsville and later expanded to two other state-run cemeteries in Prince George's and Baltimore counties, costs the state's Department of Veterans Affairs about $72,000 a year, according to Christopher Piscitelli, director of Veterans Cemetery & Memorials Programs.

Most of the money covers the program's security and transportation costs, but the inmates do receive a nominal paycheck for their work. Jones said he makes $2.60 a day, all of which is deposited into his prison account.

Piscitelli said most visitors to the cemeteries accept the inmate workers, especially when they learn they are former soldiers, Marines and seamen.

Mark Vernarelli, a spokesman for the state's Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services, added that the correctional officers have few problems with the inmates assigned to the cemeteries. He noted that a staff member must screen an inmate and classify him as minimum security before he can participate in the program. Most of the inmates are older than 50 and just a couple years from getting out of prison, he said.

Two former participants in the program were hired by the state upon their release from prison to serve as groundskeepers at the cemeteries, officials said.

In addition to speaking to the members of the work detail, the delegation, which included a member of the British Parliament, met with a veterans support group at the Jessup Correctional Institute.

Vernarelli said five such groups have formed over the past three years. They hold fundraisers for local charities, participate in living history projects and even organize ceremonies to honor their fallen or missing brethren.

The groups also serve as a resource for combat veterans coping with post-traumatic stress disorder, he said.

"It's easier to talk to these guys. They've been there and done that," said William Pruitt, a 29-year-old veteran of the war in Afghanistan who is now serving 15 years in prison for a 2004 burglary.

While several of the veterans yesterday praised prison officials for helping them, they argued that the state needed to do more to help veterans before they end up on the wrong side of the law. They suggested that if the state intervened in their lives sooner, they might not have ended up behind bars in the first place.

"There should be some more things happening outside these walls," said Pruitt.