American Legion reaching veterans inside prisons

By The Associated Press

BUNKER HILL — American Legion Post 555 is normal in a lot of ways. Members gather every month for a meeting, where Legionnaires present the colors and vote on important decisions. They organize fundraisers and donate money to a slew of local causes.

Like many Legion posts, there are bars in the meeting hall, but not the kind serving drinks. These bars are prison bars, and they’re what make the group one of the most unique in the state.

Post 555 is located inside the Miami Correctional Facility. Its entire membership is made up of inmates housed inside the maximum-security prison.

And those inmates represent the last American Legion post still operating in Miami County.

At one time, both Peru and Amboy had posts, but those closed around five years ago due to dwindling membership. Now, the veterans at the prison are the last ones carrying out the Legion’s mission of advocating for patriotism and community service.

Ed Trice, alternate national executive committee member for the American Legion and a past state commander, helped found the post 10 years ago inside Miami Correctional during a major push to get the organization inside all the state’s prisons.

Today, there are posts in up to 15 correctional facilities across Indiana, including an all-women’s prison in Madison.

But Post 555 at Miami Correctional is still one-of-a-kind, Trice said.

“Miami County is kind of an oddball considering there aren’t any posts there outside the prison,” he said. “It’s really unusual to have only one post in a county, and it’s at a prison. I’d say that’s the only one like it in the state.”

The post may be unusual, but to the 32 inmates who are members of it, the American Legion has been a godsend.

Army Veteran Gawaine Allen Sr. served four years in the 1990s during Desert Storm, but never had time to join the Legion after his service. But that changed when he was incarcerated nine years ago at Miami Correctional.

Allen said he was surprised to find the prison had a post, so he decided to show up for a few meetings to see what it was all about.

“Once I got in here and saw the camaraderie, I felt like it would be a good way to keep myself in line,” he said.

And it has. In June, Allen was elected commander of Post 555 – which members have nicknamed the Triple Nickel – and now runs the group that has helped him stay out of trouble and turn his life around.

“With us being part of the Legion, we try to hold ourselves to a higher standard,” he said. “We’re representing them at the same time we’re trying to shine a good light.”

Army Veteran Willie Walton, who serves as the post’s sergeant at arms, said the biggest way joining the Legion has helped him was giving him a sense of purpose and something bigger than himself to live for while he served out his sentence.

“It can really turn a light on inside you,” he said. “You never know, under our circumstances, what can turn that light on. It could be something, a small gesture, to make people realize that we’re not just criminals. Some of us are really trying to change our lives.”

That sense of purpose comes in part from the annual fundraisers the Legion holds inside the prison. At least twice a year, they bring in outside delicacies such as White Castle, Krispy Kreme donuts or Papa John’s pizza to sell to inmates to raise money for local causes.

Just this year, the post was able to donate $3,500 to the new all-inclusive, handicap-accessible playground built in Peru. They also gave money to local nursing homes to buy gifts for veteran residents and donated over $500 to the Indiana School for the Blind and Visually Impaired.

But there are other tasks which give Legion members something to live for, Walton said.

Every morning, a Legionnaire raises the flag at the prison, and every evening, another takes it down. Allen said they try to time the twice-daily ceremony with the one going on just down the road at Grissom Air Reserve Base, which plays “Taps” during its flag ceremony that can be heard at the prison.

There’s also a greenhouse at Miami Correctional which is almost exclusively operated by veterans. In the past, they’ve grown marigolds and other flowers, which they donated to the Miami County Chamber of Commerce to use in a beautification project in downtown Peru. They’re currently growing tomatoes, peppers and other vegetables there.

Post 555 1st Vice Commander David Turner said all the outreaches go a long way in helping members stay busy and stay positive during their time in prison.

“Each post has its own, individual uniqueness to it,” he said. “ ... Here, we can coordinate outreaches to help people out on the outside, and it gives us something to do on the inside.”

Commander Allen said inmates can be suspended or barred from being a Legion member if they get written up or have disciplinary issues. And that’s an incentive to stay out of trouble and do the right thing.

Andrew White, the prison’s veteran service coordinator and a liaison between the facility and the Legion, said that also means post members are some of the most well-behaved inmates at the prison, which has its own veterans housing unit where Legion members stay.

And that good behavior means members have some extra freedoms. During meetings, they are allowed to change out of their prison jumpsuits and wear polo shirts, khakis and Legion-issued caps.

Members are completely in charge of their meetings and determine their own affairs. They even put out an occasional newsletter called the “Triple Nickel.”

Walton said it all works to keep post members on the straight-and-narrow path and inspire them to something greater.

“We don’t tolerate any foolery, because this is something we want to see succeed,” he said. “We hold our members accountable and try to have them follow all our rules of decorum, by the book, to a ‘T.’”

But in the end, one of the biggest things the Legion gives to inmates is the camaraderie that comes from working with other veterans.

Stephen Sherwood, the commander of the prison’s Sons of the American Legion post, which includes inmates whose fathers or grandfathers were veterans, said it makes it easier to do the right thing when there are others around who understand what they’ve been through.

“We’re more apt here to understanding why someone might need a little more extra help of where they got off the path and found ourselves in prison,” he said. “I like it because we’re all here together to help each other.”

That’s why the group meets to talk about any issues members are struggling with, whether its drug addiction or family problems.

Sherwood said with the help from fellow veterans and the sense of purpose that comes with being a Legion member, every inmate has a better shot of staying out of prison once they’re released.

And even more importantly, he said, they have a better chance of actually making the world a better place.

“I think once guys realize they can help out and give back, they realize once they’re on the outside they don’t have to go down that same path,” Sherwood said. “They can take a different path and make their communities better.”




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