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May/June 2021 -   -  

A detailed replica of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial made by veterans incarcerated in Georgia has had a profound impact on the inmates, prison staff, and the local community. Involving more than two hundred inmates and nine thousand man-hours of painstaking craftwork, Walker State Prison’s quarter-scale cardboard Wall is a testament both to the dedication of its creators and to the men and women of the armed forces who died during the Vietnam War.

Walker State Prison in Rock Spring, Ga., also known as Walker Faith and Character Based Prison, is no ordinary correctional facility. The Georgia Department of Corrections (GDC) implemented its Faith and Character Based initiative in 2004 to provide “a model for positive change by allowing offenders to strengthen their mind, body, and spirit in an environment that promotes positive change.”

While the Faith and Character initiative has dorm programs throughout Georgia, Walker State Prison is the only facility that is entirely Faith and Character based, with all of its approximately four hundred offenders participating in the voluntary program.

“The prison is specifically designed to provide a pro-social, programmatic environment which fosters moral and character development and cultivates pluralistic spiritual enrichment,” said Ryan Clark, Deputy Warden of Care and Treatment at Walker State Prison. “Upon completion of the two-year Faith and Character program at Walker S.P., many offenders go on to become mentors at other facilities.” 

Georgia’s Faith and Character Based programs boasts a treatment effect of 10, meaning someone is ten times less likely to return to prison after completing such a program. While the overall recidivism rate for the state of Georgia has been close to 30 percent in recent years, according to GDC statistics, the Faith and Character Program recidivism rate is approximately 3 percent.

The Walker Veterans Program

Warden Bruce Lee started Walker’s veterans group in 2014 as part of the Faith and Character program. Today, it is made up of 55 incarcerated veterans from all branches, ranging in age from 27 to 73. Between them, these men served in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Kuwait, Afghanistan, and Bosnia. From its inception, the staff liaison for the group was Lt. Mark Lozano, a U.S. Army veteran who served in the first Persian Gulf War. Since Lt. Lozano retired late last year, Chaplain Calvin Page, a former Air Force lieutenant colonel, has run Walker’s veterans group.

“Each quarter, the veterans meet to discuss issues, changes in benefits, and to socialize,” Clark explained. “Each spring, they host an Olympiad, which is a day-long event designed to build teamwork, camaraderie, and esprit de corps. The events derive from military training activities.”

Additionally, each November the Walker veterans group holds a Veterans Day ceremony, one of the facility’s largest annual events.

“The activities remind the veterans that their commitment and service to their country have not been erased,” said Clark. “The veterans group participants attend, lead, and support program classes to include anger management, confronting self, family relations, choose to do right, and character development, to name a few. Additionally, the vets support each other by helping process record retrievals and disability claims through one-on-one mentoring.”

We learned of the Walker veterans program from one of its participants who, at the request of Georgia Department of Corrections, we will identify only as “J.R.” A VVA life member, J.R. wrote to us about the group and its Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 2019. He responded to follow-up questions by mail, after GDC denied our request for a phone interview.

“Walker’s veterans group got me focused on giving back,” wrote J.R., who has been incarcerated since 1991 and at Walker since early 2018. “We are a close-knit [group] who look out for each other’s futures, just like the military.”

J.R was an Army mechanic who arrived in Vietnam in July 1971. He served in Cam Ranh Bay as his battalion commander’s driver and as a mechanic on M88 Recovery Vehicles.

In the Walker veterans group, J.R. said he helps other veterans file claims for disability compensation and process their benefits checks into their prison JPay accounts. He referees games in the Walker’s Veterans Olympiad and works backstage at the annual Veterans Day ceremony.

“We have a Veterans Advisory Committee which coordinates Walker’s veterans’ activities with staff members,” J.R. wrote. “We attend monthly veteran meetings in which we discuss veterans’ business, VA benefits, and VA forms [and] claims.”

Every quarter, the Faith and Character Based program newsletter, The Walker Talker, includes a veteran’s account of an event in his military career. It also includes a “Veterans Voice” section covering issues, opinions, and experiences.

Veterans Day Ceremony

Walker’s Veterans Day ceremony, which began in 2014, is a multifaceted event that includes a full color guard, live music, a donated meal for veterans, and even celebrity appearances by the likes of Dukes of Hazzard star John Schneider and country music singer Cody McCarver. It brings together Walker inmates and more than 150 staff, volunteers, community members, and mentors as they honor veterans.

The occasion also offers a tangible benefit for offenders as they prepare for re-entry into society.

“We meet with state representatives and senators. We meet staff members’ family members, and we interact with local community members. Most of them are veterans,” wrote J.R. “Members of society speak with us about our future plans, which bring us back in their communities—a positive step in a prisoner’s rehabilitative process.”

J.R.’s role at the ceremony has included helping Lt. Lozano coordinate the event, including organizing seating for visitors from the surrounding community and setting up stage equipment. He has also been responsible for raising the Stars and Stripes to signal the start of the ceremony.

The Cardboard Wall

The Walker State Prison replica Vietnam Veterans Memorial dates back to the facility’s first Veterans Day ceremony. “Mark Lozano came up with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall idea as a focal point of the 2014 annual Veterans Day ceremony, which was themed ‘Welcome Home, Vietnam Veterans.’” Clark recalled. “All 58,300 names on The Wall were hand punched by 202 residents, working 16 hours a day [in teams] using four punch sets. It brought the entire prison together, not only the veterans.”

The remarkable replica Wall is about 120 feet long and split into two sections that slot into bases and join at the apex. A joint venture of Walker’s veterans group, its arts and crafts department, and prison staff, it required more than three thousand pounds of cardboard donated by a local recycling facility and thirty gallons of paint and glue. The names of every servicemember who died in the war were meticulously added, each in its correct position, using 1/8-inch punch sets.

“The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall has had a profound effect on the residents, staff, families, mentors, volunteers, and the local community,” said Clark. “It has become the centerpiece for our ceremonies, and every year we have people coming to the ceremony for the first time to find a name of a family member, friend, or battle buddy. For people who have not been to D.C. to see The Wall, when they find the name they are looking for on our wall, the emotions flow.”

The Walker Memorial Wall, being lightweight and portable, has traveled outside of the prison. For example, in 2016 it was displayed at Chattooga High School in nearby Summerville during a Vietnam War Veterans Recognition Ceremony that was part of the state of Georgia’s Vietnam War Certificate of Honor program. It remains available for loan.

“People are astounded by The Wall when they first see and realize that it is made of cardboard, glue, and paint, and that each name was hand-stamped into the panels,” Clark noted. “We believe The Wall and the veterans exemplify the abilities and usefulness of our incarcerated men.”

J.R. was keen to stress the important work of Lt. Lozano—who was honored as GDC’s Facilities Supervisor of the Year in 2015, in part for spearheading Walker’s Veterans Day ceremony—in both the prison’s veterans group and his own personal development.

“[He] always looked for the best in each one of his veterans at Walker. We loved him as a brother veteran,” J.R. wrote. “He taught me how to be proud of my Vietnam service when, at the time, I was spat on at the airport, given the middle finger, called ‘baby killer,’ etc. [I was] filled with resentment, ashamed of my service to my country.”

Walker State Prison’s Wall will continue to bring veterans and communities together wherever it is displayed. J.R. has encouraged correctional staff and inmates elsewhere to form veterans groups at their facilities, in which he perceives multiple benefits for all involved.

“Do some research and find the rewards in a veterans program,” he concluded. “The prison-system veterans can be the greatest asset a warden or prison administrator could find. A prison veteran advisory committee can create real-life activities on the inside [that] will grow in the communities surrounding the prison.”

Photos courtesy Georgia Dept of Corrections.




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