“They accept responsibility that they messed up. The purpose of incarceration is for rehabilitation. It is not because we are angry or upset at people, and the vast majority of these people have been rehabilitated to the point that they literally help run prisons.”
Gov. Mary Fallin, who must approve parole for violent offenders that come to her from the Pardon and Parole Board, said she supports the program. A change in law approved by voters in November removes Fallin from the parole process for nonviolent offenders.
“We honor those who serve, and we certainly want to help veterans,” Fallin said.
Although no numbers were available, Fallin's office has several incarcerated veterans in line for parole, Aragon said.
Terry Jenks, director of the Oklahoma Pardon and Parole Board, said a program like Battle Buddies could help in the early release of a criminal.
“That's not the dispositive issue. They're going to look at the crime they've committed and the time they've served, but if somebody gets out and they have a place to go, a place to stay, family and friends and support, that can help,” he said.
In September, Oklahoma County launched a “vet court” to help keep veterans out of jail.
The program was launched by the Oklahoma County public defender and the district attorney.
The program has been extremely popular, and in June more than 70 veterans had been approved to go through the Oklahoma County Veterans Diversion Program, rather than the traditional judicial system.
While that program catches veterans on the front end of the system to prevent incarceration, the Battle Buddies program hopes to catch them on the back end of the system and prevent a relapse or second offense.
Bob Mann, administrator of mental health operations for the Department of Corrections, said core volunteers were trying to get out to facilities before Christmas.
“We want to make sure the guys know this is the real deal,” he said.
The veterans at Crabtree have a saying or prayer, Mann said, that those who have lived their lives to protect freedom know more than most what it is to lose that freedom.
“There's folks from all sorts of different wars, from Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan, and the question is what can be done to help them when they discharge,” Mann said.
While the department has identified roughly 1,500 of the 25,000 inmates in Oklahoma corrections facilities as veterans, Mann said that is under representing the population of veterans in prisons.
Some simply don't report their service during the intake process.
Others aren't aware that they qualify as veterans because they assume a discharge disqualifies them.
“We're going to do a better job of really getting the word out in our facilities that if you ever served in the military, you are eligible for services,” Mann said.