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BY KERRY MYERS

As the formation of forty-two T-shirt and blue jean clad veterans came to attention, the late afternoon sun reflected golden flares off the flag’s red, white, and blue as the colors were struck. Behind them was a recently operable Vietnam-era armored personnel carrier, now sitting in place as the first permanent monument to veterans on the Louisiana State Penitentiary (Angola) grounds.

The formation was simultaneously proud and pensive, but the veterans’ collective countenance gave nothing away. The olive green war machine was their doing and this spring Sunday afternoon marked the monument’s official dedication. It was donated to the Camp F Veterans Incarcerated club on Veterans Day 2008 by Warden Burl Cain, a former Louisiana Army National Guardsman who has a deep respect for the military service rendered by the men under his care and control.

“We care about all of our veterans, but our Vietnam veterans are pretty special,” Cain said. “The Camp-F VETS have done a lot to help their community. This Vietnam Veterans Memorial is for them. They have earned it, and I want them to work on it and turn it into a beautiful place.”

Receiving the gift was one thing; deciding how to make best use of it was another.

Now occupying a concrete slab on a site framed by landscaping and bordered by a stand of flag poles, the monument, located just off Angola’s main road about a mile from the front gate, capped off several months of planning and physical labor by Camp F VETS’ officers and members. They were—as they are with every club activity or service project—mission-minded.

Camp F VETS is the home of VVA Chapter 689, one of only a handful of independent VVA chapters inside a prison. Chapter 689 was chartered in 1992, an offspring of Veterans Incarcerated, a prison club begun years before at the Main Prison, the largest of Angola’s six camps. Camp F VETS is relatively new, sanctioned by the prison administration on Memorial Day 2007, primarily because veterans at the all-trusty camp—nearly five miles away from Main Prison—had grown in sufficient numbers and activity. Finding members was easy: Several Camp F residents were original members of the Main Prison Vets Incarcerated and experienced in club operations. Starting a club from scratch proved more difficult.

Every inmate club requires sponsors—prison employees willing to donate their time to help guide the club through what can be a considerable bureaucracy. Good sponsors are vital to good clubs. Camp F was fortunate. Security Colonel Rusty Bordelon and maintenance supervisor Charles Matherne, both military veterans, took on the task. They provided start-up assistance, maneuvering the new club in and out of potholes and through proper channels. With additional support from VVA National and the Louisiana State Council, Camp F VETS hit the ground running.

Angola has 32 inmate clubs operating under bylaws approved by the Louisiana Corrections Department and the Warden. They are semiautonomous: They elect their own officers and executive boards, define their own goals, set their own membership criteria, and plan their own activities.

With that self-determination comes constant scrutiny. Doing anything, even something as simple as holding a meeting, requires adherence to a set of rules and security protocols. Club meetings are generally held in the evenings, after the workday, but prisons—particularly maximum security prisons—operate differently when the sun goes down. Security dictates that no inmate may move after dark without authorization.

So when the Camp F VETS’ executive board planned meetings to work out the specifics on how and where the monument was to be displayed, the necessary paperwork naming the members by prison number, name, and living quarters with the proper signatures was just standard operating procedure. To inmates experienced in club administration, it is routine, unless something is out of order; then it is not. A count that will not clear, done hourly throughout the night, can shut all activities down. So can a power failure, the discovery of significant contraband, and a host of other security-related issues.

“Obstacles,” said Camp F VETS president William Kissinger, an Air Force veteran who served in Vietnam, “are looked at as opportunities.” Initiatives that chafe the institution’s rules and regulations are doomed to failure. Credibility with the prison administration cannot be underestimated, nor can a clearly defined mission. When the administrative department overseeing prison clubs considers proposals for activities or purchases, credibility and a clear purpose go a long way toward getting approval.

Angola’s inmate organizations support their projects through member donations and through revenue generated by food concessions in the prison’s visiting rooms and at the famous Angola Prison Rodeo. Camp F VETS operates a donut concession, but their market is limited to the nearly four hundred inmates and fifty or so employees at Camp F. It has not made them wealthy. It has provided the club with enough to fund service projects for inmates living on the prison hospital wards. That program began simply with club members visiting sick or geriatric veterans. In time, members started bringing fresh fruit and hygiene items. Eventually, the program expanded to help all inmates who are hospitalized or else permanently assigned there. The donut concession also supports sobriety and education programs for members and other inmates and projects for the Louisiana War Veterans Home at Jackson, Louisiana.

After working closely with the prison administration to determine the monument’s location, the scope of the project was next. Funds were limited. In addition to ensuring enough cash was on hand to handle the weekly donut inventory, a new rodeo concession—grilled beef and chicken fajitas—was planned for the April event.

The VVA State Council helped. They donated two refrigerators and significantly reduced the initial start-up costs. Club sponsors Bordelon and Matherne found a tent, and club officers somehow found the lion’s share of the cooking equipment. The sponsors, along with Camp F security, made sure the equipment and food stores would be transported to the rodeo grounds. That’s how things work in prison: The right people in the right places with the right knowledge making it happen. “A lot like non-coms,” said Kissinger.

With the rodeo concession costs under control, the monument site became little more than some concrete, paint, begged and borrowed materials, and elbow grease. Members volunteered in abundance, and for nearly two weeks, each afternoon and on weekends, anyone driving down the prison’s main road could see the site taking shape. Of course, the work crews were cleared with security in advance, as were transportation arrangements to and from the site, a matter simplified with help from the sponsors.

A form was built and concrete poured for a pad that would be the monument’s base. The APC was detailed, painted, and moved to the pad. The landscaping was reworked, and the flag poles were made by inmate welders from discarded material.

On the afternoon of the dedication, a prison bus drove the cadre, all trustees, to the monument site, stopping at Main Prison to pick up some of their brothers-in-arms. Even an event like the monument’s dedication required coordination of security in at least three locations.

VVA Region 7 Director Allen Manuel, Charles Norman and Richard DeLong of the state VVA Veterans Incarcerated Committee, and Sulie Borque from the VVA State Council stood with the Angola veterans during the dedication. The monument was the first that Manuel knew of specifically dedicated to incarcerated veterans. “Though some veterans became incarcerated after serving in a conflict, we have never forgotten them,” he said. “Our motto is, ‘We will never forget another veteran. We are brothers until we die.’”

Striving is the most important quality of a veterans service organization, according to Camp F VETS Vice President George “Gunny” Woodcock, a former Marine and Vietnam veteran who has been a part of Vets Incarcerated for nearly 25 years. “Try to make a difference. Try to be of service. Try to be a brother to another veteran.”

Most important to an incarcerated chapter’s survival and success is credibility and a good relationship with the State Council and regional leadership. Any involvement between a prison organization and people on the outside is looked upon with skepticism and suspicion. Kissinger calls it “building bridges between Angola and the outside community.”

When Camp F VETS began looking into working with the War Veterans Home, questions of motive and sincerity were immediately raised. But after the first group from the club spent a day with the home’s residents and their sincerity was evident, credibility followed. Camp F VETS, through its concession and fund-raising activities, now sends the home a monthly stipend, donates rocking chairs and outdoor furniture made by members, and—with the establishment of its rodeo concession—has pledged 10 percent of net profits to support continuing programs at the home. Because of its track record, Camp F VETS has jumped one of a prison club’s biggest obstacles.

Camp F VETS’ members have sought tangible results from their efforts. Service is the mission; the men of Camp F VETS remain focused, determined, and mission-minded.


Kerry Myers is the editor of The Angolite, the magazine of the Louisiana State Penitentiary at Angola.

 

 

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