AUGUSTA – Joseph Harmon of Auburn enlisted in the military immediately after high school, hoping for a better life.
“There was nothing but drugs and trouble for me if I stayed here,” he said. “I figured the best thing to do would be to get the hell out of here.”
But 12 years later, Harmon, 30, an Army veteran who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, is struggling with substance abuse after initially taking prescription medication for a hand injury he sustained during his deployment. He was arrested and charged in March with drug trafficking.
“It’s kind of a messed up thing to say, but going to jail was probably the thing that saved me from overdosing on drugs and actually dying from it,” he said.
The former sergeant is awaiting trial in a cell block in Augusta that exclusively houses military veterans facing charges. It’s a two-year-old initiative at the Kennebec County Correctional Facility aimed at treating military service-related problems that have contributed to the inmates’ arrests.
For the past two years, male military veterans who are either awaiting trial or serving a sentence can apply to be housed with other veterans in a 12-person block at the Kennebec County jail.
The program is also open to female veterans, who are housed together in a separate area of the jail. They have access to all the same programs as the men.
Application is open to any inmate in the state who has served in the military and is either awaiting trial or serving a sentence.
The jail also offers group programs for veterans designed to address problems such as post-traumatic stress, substance abuse, mental health conditions, anger management and strained personal relationships.
Kennebec County Sheriff Randall Liberty, a retired Army master sergeant who volunteered for a tour in Iraq and taught at West Point for three years, started the program in July 2011. He said the initiative is part of his patriotic duty to rehabilitate veterans.
“I really feel like when the nation goes to war, we can wave our flags and say, ‘Go get ‘em boys,’ but we then have a moral duty to assist them in their transition back,” Liberty said.
The veterans block is the latest Kennebec County Sheriff’s Office program designed to reduce the recidivism rate — the rate those convicted of crimes are convicted again.
Liberty said inmates who are veterans do not get special treatment, but they get different forms of treatment to address needs specific to their military background.
Since 2010, 10 employees of the sheriff’s office have served overseas while with the department.
The inmates agree it makes a difference to have veteran corrections officers, who are identified by a pin on their uniform indicating they served.
Sgt. Alan Gregory, a veteran and shift supervisor at the jail,said he noticed the correction officers in the jail manually open the door locks instead of using the automatic locks, which loudly click open and could sound like gunshots.
“They don’t just barge in on people, knowing that we have needs and PTSD. They have caution and they show respect and we give it in return,” he said.
Liberty said his office has a “purpose-driven incarceration” philosophy — to not only protect the public by arresting and detaining offenders, but to also address problems that contribute to re-offending and eventually reduce the number of people repeatedly arrested for the same crimes.
“The philosophy of ‘purpose-driven incarcerated’ means we ask, ‘Why are people here?’ In this population, it’s a result of trauma that was sustained in service to our country,” he said.
Keeping the program running is not easy. The jail’s financial resources from the county and state for programs continue to dwindle, and Liberty said his staff is stretched thin.
“Morally, I can’t just walk away. I can’t say, ‘I know you’re broken and I know it’s a result of your service but you’re on your own,”‘ he said.
Kaitlin Schroeder can be contacted at 861-9252 or at: