Veterans Service Group Fosters Camaraderie at Nebraska State Penitentiary

Veterans Service Group Fosters Camaraderie at Nebraska State Penitentiary

Veterans Service Group members and staff
Veterans Service Group mural


CONTACT Cara Wilwerding, Communications Manager

OFFICE 402-479-5712 |

June 1, 2017 (Lincoln, Neb). – The Nebraska State Penitentiary (NSP) is giving incarcerated veterans a second chance for success.

The Veteran’s Service Group (VSG) housing gallery can house up to 40 maximum/medium custody individuals from all branches of military service. There are currently 39 veterans in the unit.

“It’s not just a place to serve time,” Case Manager and Navy veteran Caleb Larson explained. “We want people to be actively participating and role modeling for other inmates around the facility as well.”

Larson was monumental in forming the unit in October alongside Unit Manager and Army veteran Scott Isherwood and Mental Health Extern Christina Hein. In order to be assigned to the unit applicants must prove that their military discharge was not dishonorable, and sign an agreement that says they will participate in programming.

Veterans in the unit can participate in any programs available to the general population, along with a number of programs they’ve started on their own. Vet to Vet is a program that individuals in the VSG created to foster one-on-one communication skills. The Veterans Support and Mentoring program is through a partnership with the Department of Veterans Affairs. The VSG also formed its own yoga and physical training programs, along with a new book club that meets once a week. A veteran-specific Moral Reconation Therapy (MRT) class begins on June 5, and executives hope to see in-unit Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) programming introduced in the near future.

“The main purpose of the gallery is to have meetings, have a common goal and take their programming,” Isherwood said.

VSG allows privileges that aren’t necessarily available in other units, but with those privileges come expectations. Veterans on the unit have assembled their own handbook, which outlines structure, goals and leadership for the group. They vote for a new commander and vice-commander every six months and switch out members on teams for welcoming, communications, learning/education, motivation/entertainment, rituals, rules and more. Each veteran is required to be on at least one team, and each team reports back to the unit during monthly meetings.

“It’s still my goal that the individuals do the work themselves,” Larson said. “It’s that investment; I want to see that they truly want to do this.”

Larson likes to think of the veteran and staff relationship on the unit as a partnership, although staff maintains the final authority. This partnership has led to great improvement in both staff and veteran morale. There have been fewer grievances filed within the unit than any other general population unit, and the veterans in the VSG haven’t produced a misconduct report in nearly three months.

“Staff has done an outstanding job with this and I believe the inmate population is appreciative,” NSP Warden Robert Madsen said.

While the unit can’t serve all 84 veterans currently housed at NSP, there is also a Veterans’ Club available to every incarcerated individual. Veterans from the VSG have become positive role models within the Veterans’ Club, in addition to the Circle of Concerned Lifers Club and the Mexican Awareness Through Association (MATA) Self-Betterment Club.

“The main purpose is camaraderie and reestablishing their honor, courage and commitment to their self and their country,” Larson said. “When you’re in the military, they instill a number of core values and life-management skills. When they lose their freedom and get arrested, they kind of let themselves down. Even though their honor is bruised, they still take pride in their military service.”

The newest addition to the VSG wasn’t a veteran, but rather a furry friend. Sam – an 8-year-old Blue Tick, Coon Hound, Great Dane mix – arrived on Sunday to serve as a companion dog within the unit. All Hounds on Deck, a nonprofit that provides trained companion dogs to veterans in Nebraska, donated Sam and all of the supplies he will need at NSP.

“In other units with dogs, individuals have responded well,” Larson said. “You get up in the morning and see this dog in front of you. Here’s somebody that doesn’t judge you and it just changes the environment.”

Sam will stay in the unit for one to two years, and then will be donated to a local veteran in the community.

In addition to the VSG at NSP, the Nebraska Department of Correctional Services (NDCS) plans to open a minimum custody veterans unit at the Omaha Correctional Center in the coming months. Minimum-custody veterans throughout the department may apply for consideration.

“It just kind of absolutely snowballed and exploded,” Hein said about interest in the VSG. “This has been a resounding success far beyond anything we were anticipating last summer.”

That interest will only continue to snowball as more plans get put in place, Larson said. It’s all about camaraderie, teamwork and reducing recidivism rates, he explained. 

“The ultimate goal of the gallery is to facilitate better reentry services for veteran,” Larson said.  “With proper programming I think they can help not only themselves, but others as well.”