Veterans and Pennsylvania's Criminal Justice System
Asked by veterans from the Vietnam Veterans of America inmate Chapter 466 in Graterford state prison to be the official speaker for their Armed Forces Day event on May 18th, the following was given as a speech. Members of VVA Chapter 466 were in attendance, along with a host of friends and supporters of the chapter, some who are quite conservative veterans. Several Graterford staff and security officials were in attendance. Pennsylvania Secretary of Corrections John Wetzel was invited and had committed to attend the Armed Forces Day event, but at the last minute he had a conflict and did not show up. Wetzel worked his way up from a corrections officer and was given the top prison job in May 2010 by conservative Republican Governor Tom Corbett. A copy of the speech has been sent to Wetzel's office and to other officials in Harriburg. During these years, I have become acquainted with a number of decent, hard-working Graterford officials and staff employees. The following remarks were written with all these individuals and parties in mind.
As a Vietnam veteran and member of Veterans For Peace, I have worked with the VVA chapter and other interested groups for a number of years as an advocate for prison reform in the area of veterans. Of particular interest to me is recognition of the mitigating factor of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Pennsylvania's draconian life-without-parole sentence in which the only way out is a coffin or a commutation. And in the current political climate in Pennsylvania commutations are rare and tend to be given as a governor is leaving office.
It is a great honor to speak here today for Armed Forces Day. I must say, when I was asked to be the speaker today I was a little surprised. While I’m very much an American, I am not a flag-waver.
So I’m not going to give the usual Armed Forces Day speech that praises our military for preserving our freedom here in America. Everyone has heard that one many times before.
Since I’m speaking to a mixed audience of prison inmates (most of them veterans), prison officials and other distinguished guests, I want to talk about the Armed Forces and incarcerated veterans.
Like others in this room, I’m a Vietnam veteran. But that identification really doesn’t tell anyone much other than triggering stereotypes.
I joined the Army in 1965 a week out of high school. I had just turned 18. My father had been a PT boat captain in the south Pacific, and my brother was in the Army infantry at the time. I ended up as part of the Army Security Agency, was sent to Vietnam and was assigned, first, to the 25th Division, then to the 4th Division, both headquartered in Pleiku. I was a fairly intelligent kid, but, frankly, very naïve. I was trained in Morse code to work as a radio direction finder.