STERLING, Colo. — They served their country. Now, they’re serving time.
Some 1,400 military veterans call Colorado prisons home. But at the state’s largest prison, they’re trying a new approach to get veteran inmates back on track. They call it Unit 32. It’s the veterans unit.
About 100 former service members have moved into Unit 32, a blue building on the edge of the minimum-security yard at Sterling Correctional Facility. Their home has the feel of a military barracks, with tidy rooms, American flags and military insignias adorning the walls.
“The guys who are assigned to that unit want to to be as proud of themselves, to have the same self respect as they did have when they were in the military, and they kind of hold each other accountable and lift each other up to do that,” said David Scherbarth, associate warden at Sterling Correctional Facility.
Whatever brought them to Sterling, something needed to be done once they arrived. A different approach. So officials at the Colorado Department of Corrections decided to follow the lead of states like Virginia, Florida and Georgia. And a year and a half ago, they opened the first ever veterans ward at Sterling.
It’s a unit separated from the rest of the prison population, with very strict rules and a lot of accountability. Every inmate who moves in has to adhere to an honor code, promising not to lie, cheat or steal. They have to treat others as they’d like to be treated, show respect and take responsibility.
And with that responsibility comes the reward of being treated like they’re part of the solution and not part of the problem.
“It has been just life changing, obviously. My attitude has changed, my behavior is changed forever. But more importantly, the sense of self worth and self pride is back,” said Darrel Walker, one of the first inmates involved with Unit 32.
For the last 19 years, a sparsely furnished prison cell is the only home Walker has known. And he knows, it’s his fault.
“I shot a man in a fit of drunken anger, rage… and unfortunately the man didn’t survive. And I’ll be sorry about that for the rest of my life. Innocent man, he shouldn’t have died,” Walker told FOX31’s Jeremy Hubbard.
An Army veteran who served during Vietnam before his life took a violent turn, Walker was enlisted once again recently. This time by prison officials, who’d been researching just how many veterans are behind the razor wire at penitentiaries around the nation. The numbers were staggering.
“(We found) in the nation, the average veteran population in prisons ranged from eight to ten percent,” Scherbarth said.
That’s about 200,000 veterans incarcerated nationwide. Many of them coming out of the military dealing with physical pain, traumatic brain injuries, mental health problems and PTSD, followed by a history of bad decision making and violent behavior.
“I would never tell you any of that excuses the felonies they committed, and they would tell you the same thing, but it certainly contributed to them,” said Scherbarth.
“No one is looking for a handout. They just want a chance. They want redemption,” said Dean Williams, executive director of the Colorado Department of Corrections.
Williams came to Colorado a year ago from Alaska, brought here by Governor Jared Polis to oversee the billion-dollar Colorado prison system. And to reform it. He says there is a wealth of research showing improved outcomes for prisoners, when you normalize the prison environment, and make the “inside” more like the “outside.”
“One of the guys told me when he was talking to me, he was like, ‘Director, sometimes I forget I’m in prison here.’ And I’m like, ‘Exactly.’ That’s exactly what I want,” Williams said.
“Other prisons have tried this, ‘We’re just going to make prison as harsh as we can make it.’ The problem with that is this: you make the prison more dangerous. Not just for the people living there, but also for the staff who have to work here. You end up driving higher recidivism rates, you make people worse than when they got here,” he added.
“Everybody that’s gone to the parole board since the inception of this unit has been granted parole,” Walker said.
That includes Walker himself. FOX31 was there when he was released from Sterling Correctional Facility a few weeks ago after 19 years of incarceration. He says he’d still be behind bars, if not for the veterans unit.
“I’m close to tears,” Walker told FOX31 moments after his release on the morning of October 15, 2019.
“It’s been a long time, and let’s not forget what brought me here. I wish I could tell (my victim’s family) how sorry I am. That’s somebody that I’ll never forget and I’ll never forget the reason that brought me here, and I’ve used that over the years as a catalyst to change my life. And from that point on I’ve done everything that I can to change the man that I was into the man that I am now. And hopefully for the better,” he added.
Above, watch FOX31’s entire special Serving Those Who Serve report, “Inside Unit 32.”