The Official Voice of Vietnam Veterans of America, Inc. ®
An organization chartered by the U.S. Congress
September/October 2005
FEATURE
 
 

Breaking the Bonds
MANSFIELD CORRECTIONAL INSTITUTION CHAPTER 616
 

BY JIM DOYLE

Bill Homer is a man built like a fireplug. Not too tall, broad-shouldered, and with ham-sized hands. He serves as Staff Adviser to VVA Chapter 616, housed inside the walls of the Mansfield Correctional Institution in Mansfield, Ohio. He is a U.S. Navy veteran.

Homer believes very deeply that “if you treat these guys like out-of-control children, they will act like out-of-control children.” He is respected by the inmate-members of the chapter because he treats them with respect. Respect and basic human dignity are important components of what Bill Homer does as an employee of the facility and as a veteran who advises and sponsors the chapter.

“Some of the guys in this institution belong here,” he said. “Some made errors in judgment, and that’s why they’re here. They are putting their time to good use, and I’m damn proud of that, one veteran to another.”

In January, Chapter 616 donated 250 pounds of canned goods to the Joseph House, a homeless veterans shelter. Fellow Staff Adviser Don Berry joined Bill Homer in the presentation of a POW/MIA flag to Keith Maupin, father of POW Matt Maupin.

That POW/MIA flag was the first to fly over the Mansfield Correctional Institution. In a ceremony in September 2004 under the direction of Joseph A. Jennings III, executive director of VVA’s Buckeye State Council, the flag was raised above the front gate of the institution.


A year ago, VVA Veterans Incarcerated Committee chair John Koprowski, who retired from the Marine Corps and then spent 25 years working for the Florida Department of Corrections, visited the members of Chapter 616. He came for very specific reasons—not the least of which was to set the record straight about what VVA can and can’t do with respect to Veterans Incarcerated. He was also there to praise the work ethic developed by these veterans.

“Health care as it relates to Veterans Incarcerated is a tough one,” he said. “We have no way of keeping track of the resources available in each state. Some provide a certain level of care to veterans, others do not, and we [VVA] are not in a position to demand anything from state governments or institutions.”

One of the main concerns of those preparing to be released is what kinds of support systems are available in their communities. Koprowski explained that if there is a VVA chapter in their community, they should contact that chapter and get involved.

Some sixty men scheduled to be released in the near future are service-connected disabled and fear that obtaining meaningful employment is their greatest challenge. Many have gained skills and certifications in various fields, ranging from heating, ventilation, and air conditioning, to the manufacture of automobile motor mounts in the prison industry program.

Chris Sissom, who was a machinist’s mate in the U.S. Navy from 1990-93, used the skills he learned in the Navy to finish courses offered by Ashland University and receive his certification in HVAC. “I’d like to open a small business when I get out and do air conditioning service and repair,” he said.

Christopher Ferrel is best known to VVA members as the man who used his airbrush skills—developed in prison—to paint the huge banner that served as a backdrop during VVA’s 11th National Convention in St. Louis. Ferrel has been in Mansfield since he was 16 and looks forward to his parole hearing in 2008.

The self-taught artist, whose work adorns the quarters used by the chapter and Associates for meetings and work parties, is sought out by schools and churches to produce banners.

Chapter President John Johnson was assigned to the 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kansas, from 1969-72. He has spent his time studying real estate and is a non-certified real estate agent waiting for the day he is released to take the state test to qualify for his license.

“If there is something you want done,” he declared, “You have to do it yourself.”

The range of questions and issues brought up with Koprowski included job training before and after release, and federal and state laws and regulations dealing with obtaining training, medical services, VA benefits, and discharge upgrades. “If you left the military with a less-than-honorable discharge, the chances aren’t very good that you’ll be able to upgrade that bad paper,” Koprowski told the group.

William Morris is a third-generation veteran, having followed his grandfather and father into uniform. Morris spent ten years in the Navy and ten in the Air Force. “I gave as a civilian and that hasn’t changed,” said Morris whose father is a member of VVA Chapter 900. “I want to keep giving to my community.”

“The military taught us to help people,” said Samuel Burson, echoing the mantra of nearly all the inmates.


Veterans, staff advisers, VVA national officials, and a collection of state VVA officials and others who made a commitment to reach out to Veterans Incarcerated drank coffee and soda and ate cookies baked at the institution.

Chapter 616’s record is one many free chapters would envy.

Chapter 616 was honored as Chapter of the Year by the Ohio State Council for its tremendous record of community service in 2004.

The chapter presented a $500 check to Richland County to promote breast-cancer awareness. The chapter also donated $1,000 to the Richland County Red Cross to help provide care packages for troops in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In an effort to help understand Post-traumatic Stress Disorder and its effects on the individual, family, and community, the chapter spent time working with psychology students at Ohio State University-Mansfield. Eight students attended a recent meeting of the Midwestern Psychological Association in Chicago where their work with inmates in the chapter brought a better understanding of the effects of treatment and an understanding of PTSD and how it affects veterans.

At the conclusion of the meeting one of the members said, “If you treat me like a man, I’ll act like a man.” Buckeye State Council Veterans Incarcerated Staff Adviser of the Year Bill Homer smiled. “I’m so proud of these guys,” he said. “They really have made a difference.”

   

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