Military veterans hold themselves to higher standards in prison

HOOKERTON | Gregory Ellerbee is standing at attention.

He looks ahead with a slight smile on his face. His chest is puffed out and proud.

As he stands, Ellerbee is thinking of where he was two decades ago and where his life has taken him since.

From 1996 to 1998, he served on an honor guard as part of the 3rd Infantry Regiment, the famed Old Guard that stands watch outside the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery and participates in military funerals and national celebrations.

“I marched in the second inauguration for President Clinton,” Ellerbee said.

On this day, however, and every day, Ellerbee doesn’t stand near a national memorial or a head of state. He is standing outside an 11-by-7 cell.

At Maury Correctional Institution in Greene County, officials are taking a new tactic on care for incarcerated veterans.

Thirty-eight veterans — men who served in every conflict from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan — now live together in a single, two-story cellblock.

They refer to themselves as the American Veterans’ Group at Maury Correctional Institution or, less formally, as the veterans block.

A community within the prison community, the men have their own set of rules beyond what prison officials impose.

There are higher standards of discipline, hygiene and cleanliness, the inmates said. And a heightened desire to look out for each other.

Prison officials have taken note. And now, what began as an experiment at Maury will soon expand to other prisons in North Carolina.

The state plans to open a veterans block at every custody level within the prison system. Sites for those blocks have yet to be determined, but officials said they hope to have the second block up and running by late spring.

Kenneth Lassiter, deputy director for operations for the state prison system, said the veterans at Maury have proven that veterans blocks can make a difference.

An Army veteran himself, Lassiter said the specialized blocks foster better discipline and mentorship among the veterans, and also serve as a reward of sorts for past service.

“They’re still inmates. They’re still incarcerated. They’re still heroes, though,” Lassiter said. “Some of them fought for this country.”

 

Specialized housing for incarcerated veterans is a growing trend across the nation.

As of May, the Department of Justice said at least 24 states had such programs, either in state prisons, jails or federal prisons.

The numbers included 36 state prisons, two federal prisons and 25 jails.

Advocates for the programs say they allow for more efficient veteran-specific services and allow veteran prisoners to fully participate in treatment related to post-traumatic stress or other service-related ailments without the distractions of the general population. And in reviving a sense of discipline from their previous service, and stressing an adherence to core military values and personal responsibility, the programs improve morale and decrease disciplinary issues.

Lynn Newsom is one such advocate.

The co-director of the Quaker House in Fayetteville, Newsom began pushing for specialized housing for veterans in North Carolina earlier this year, after becoming involved in the case of Joshua Eisenhauer.

Eisenhauer is a former Fort Bragg staff sergeant who was sentenced to between 10 and 18 years in prison last year for charges related to a 2012 shooting at his apartment.

In what his lawyers have said was an incident triggered by post-traumatic stress related to an Afghanistan deployment, Eisenhauer opened fire on police and firefighters from his west Fayetteville apartment. No one was seriously injured.

After his conviction, Eisenhauer continued to battle his PTSD demons, Newsom said. Conditions at Pender Correctional Institution, which is next to a firing range, exacerbated the issues.

“I realized just how horrible and abysmal prisons can be,” she said. “It can be tortuous for those with PTSD.”

Eisenhauer has since been transferred to another prison, Newsom said, and is getting treatment for his issues.

But Newsom continues to push for specialized housing as part of a state committee involving veterans advocates called the Working Group on Mental Healthcare Needs of Incarcerated Veterans.

She said she was encouraged by prison officials’ plans to expand the veterans housing program to other prisons.

“That would make us very happy,” she said.

 

​Ellerbee is a leader among the imprisoned veterans.

As co-chairman of a group that calls itself the Joint Chiefs of Staff, he helps keep order within the block. At the same time, the block is helping Ellerbee prepare for life outside the prison gates.

The 39-year-old inmate said being on the veterans block has reminded him of the discipline and honor that once dictated his life.

After leaving the Army, Ellerbee said he lost those traits.

He struggled to find his place in the world and to find and keep jobs. He made a series of bad decisions, culminating in an assault on a man who owed him money in 2005.

In December of that year, Ellerbee kicked in a door at the home of a Maxton man and began pummeling him.

According to officials, Ellerbee dragged his victim out of the home and into the road, where he continued to beat him, breaking ribs, perforating the man’s liver and causing permanent damage to the man’s left eye.

Ellerbee then drove away. His victim was hospitalized for more than a month.

In 2011, Ellerbee was convicted of first-degree burglary and assault inflicting serious bodily injury and sentenced to more than 10 years in prison.

Now, in prison, Ellerbee is finding what he needs to hopefully turn his life around.

He said being among fellow veterans has reminded him of his past service and given him a new sense of belonging.

“I feel this sense of unity,” he said.

For years in prison, Ellerbee said he felt beat down and defeated. But now, he’s part of something bigger than himself again.

“It’s uplifting,” he said. “You realize you can do something with yourself.”

That attitude doesn’t surprise Cumberland County District Court Judge Lou Olivera.

Olivera, an Army veteran who oversees the county’s veterans treatment court and gained national attention for staying overnight in jail with a veteran suffering from PTSD, said the bond of service doesn’t fade, no matter where you are.

“If you’ve ever served in the military, you feel an immediate bond and comfort with other veterans,” he said.

Olivera said what state officials have observed on the veterans block is similar to what he sees with nonviolent offenders in veterans court. Following the mantra of never leaving a man behind, veterans often step up to help one another in times of need, he said.

“Usually, you’re careful not to mix high-risk and low-risk offenders,” Olivera said. “But among veterans, that can be an advantage. You see them pick each other up. They get the stragglers back in formation.”

 

Inmates said the veterans block has kept them insulated from their past prison lives, with the threat of being a victim of theft or assault all but vanishing.

Allen Jenkins said he feels safer here. There’s peace and quiet and “no nonsense.”

He said when the veterans have issues, “it’s handled in a good type of way.”

And when there’s a bad apple, that prisoner is sent back to the general population.

“These are a different type of individuals,” Jenkins said. “We don’t fear each other in here. We shouldn’t.”

Jenkins interrupts his game of solitaire to talk. He’s been in prison since 2012 and isn’t expected to be released until 2043.

His life, he said, has been marred by anger issues.

“It helps to be in the veterans block,” Jenkins said. “It’s more relaxed. I’m less stressed out… The inmates have a different attitude, a different outlook. It reminds me of my past service.”

The 50-year-old Kannapolis man said he’s come to realize that the only time he hasn’t had anger issues was during his two tours in the Army, from 1985 to 1989 and again from 2000 to 2004.

Now he’s serving more than 33 years in prison for two counts of attempted first-degree murder.

In 2012, Jenkins’ anger issues boiled over. Jenkins shot an ex-girlfriend and then set up an ambush to target the cops he knew would come looking for him.

“I got real mad,” he said. “I was trying to shoot law enforcement, but they shot me right before I shot them.”

Officials said they look beyond the acts that landed the veterans in prison.

“We’re concentrating on that period of time when you were protecting our country, not whatever got you into prison,” said Dennis Daniels, the administrator at Maury Correctional. “We’re reminding them it’s not about what got you in prison.”

And that, in turn, is giving the inmates something to be proud of.

“It reminds me of being back amongst the brotherhood, being back in basic,” Ellerbee said.

The block is home to veterans from the Vietnam era to modern day, he said. They are separated by generations, but united in their service.

“We sit together a lot and we talk a lot,” Ellerbee said. “We’re proud of our service, but we also deal with our issues.”

“It’s a beautiful thing,” he added.

 

Fayetteville Observer Military editor Drew Brooks can be reached at brooksd@fayobserver.com or 910-486-3567.