Maine State Prison has recently established a veterans' pod, part of the vision of Warden Randall Liberty to aid inmates in achieving a successful transition back to the outside world.

Liberty dates his journey to establishing the pod to when he volunteered for military service in Iraq in 2004. The journey is nearing completion now that Liberty, warden of the Maine State Prison since 2015, has established a veterans' pod at the state's main correctional facility.

As a sergeant major in the Army, he experienced violence he describes as "horrific." Even though he had been a law enforcement officer for 24 years before he went to Iraq, he said, "Nothing prepares you for the violence of war."

After his tour, "When I came back, I was impaired," he said, with hyper-vigilance and a shorter fuse than before his military service. He got help because his family and others encouraged him to see a therapist at Togus VA Hospital.

As chief sheriff's deputy of Kennebec County (he was later sheriff) , he ran the county jail, and he began asking inmates if they had done military service. That led to the establishment of a veterans' unit at the jail, where inmates could receive services based on their military service and shared in a common subculture of military service. Because of the trauma of war, some veterans struggle with addiction, anger or relationship issues that can lead to involvement with the criminal justice system, Liberty said.

The new pod has 64 beds, 45 of which are presently filled. To qualify for housing there, an inmate must meet the criteria for a medium security classification, Liberty said, and must show proof of honorable military service. One advantage of the new pod is that representatives of the VA, American Legion and other veterans' service organizations can provide services to all the veterans more efficiently, Liberty said. In addition, the men living there share the experience of having been in combat, which is difficult for those who haven't been in a war to understand. He said the culture of the pod is "very calm, relaxed, well behaved." The inmates know it is a privilege to be there. He added that about 6 percent of inmates are veterans.

The Post Traumatic Stress Disorder which affects many returning combat veterans often leads to addiction and other issues that can be treated more effectively when their military experience is taken into account, Liberty said. In addition, the staff for the pod were recruited from among existing prison staff who were combat veterans, so they all understand the experience of war. That includes the caseworker for the pod, who helps set up resources to aid veterans transitioning back to society. Inmates being released are provided with connections to Togus, Garry Owen House in Searsmont, and other resources to help get them on their feet. The Maine chapter of National Alliance on Mental Illness also provides crisis intervention team training for staff on dealing with mental impairments. The daylong training includes a segment on veterans taught by Liberty.

Other specialized housing units at the prison, both also for those with a medium security classification, include an educational pod, where inmates working on a GED or college degree have access to four paid tutors and a teacher is part of the pod staff. And in January, Liberty said, the prison will launch a pilot recovery pod for inmates struggling with addiction. If the medium-security pod is successful, the warden said, he hopes to replicate it for those with a close (more restrictive) security classification.

All of these programs, as well as others at the prison, are aimed at helping inmates make a successful transition once they leave the prison and not return to state custody, Liberty said, noting that it costs around $42,000 a year to keep an inmate at the prison.

It was clear in talking to him that Liberty has a special desire to help fellow veterans succeed after they leave prison. "Society has a duty to help these guys transition back in a meaningful way," he said.