Incarcerated Veterans Care for Veterans Cemetery

Award Winner: 2008 First-place state government story in Division E for MDDC Press Association

Prisoners called to aid fallen soldiers

Sykesville inmates tapped to maintain veterans’ cemetery

By Charles Schelle
cschelle@patuxent.com

Posted 12/17/08

(Enlarge) Central Laundry Facility residents Sylvester Woodland, Timothy Brown and Ernest Belcher work together to install new section markers at the Garrison Forest Veterans Cemetery as part of a pilot program between the cemetery and the Department of Corrections. All the inmates chosen for the duty are, themselves, veterans. (Photo by Phil Grout)

David Fisher, 42, looked across Garrison Forest Veterans Cemetery and pointed to two hills.

“My uncle is buried right up there over that hill and one of my best friends is buried right there,” said the Army veteran — who these days is incarcerated at the Central Laundry Facility minimum security jail in Sykesville.

“I put flowers on his grave the other day,” he added.

Fisher, originally from East Baltimore, is one of several workers at the Central Laundry Facility who are honorably discharged veterans now incarcerated.

And since September, he and others have been maintaining Garrison Forest Cemetery in Owings Mills as a means to honor their fellow servicemen, friends and family; and as a way to find meaningful work when they’re released.

“I grew up in the ghettos, there weren’t a lot of opportunities,” Fisher said. As he got intro trouble at a later age, he decided to go into the military, and found it rewarding.

Since Sept. 2, honorably discharged veterans, who themselves are eligible for burial in a veterans cemetery, are working in this new Maryland Department of Public Safety and Corrections program to help clean up Garrison Forest.

It’s the only program of its kind in the nation, according to the Department of Corrections. About 420 veterans (men and women) are in Maryland state jails and prisons, according to Mark Vernarelli, Department of Corrections spokesman. Of those, the department selected veterans who were honorably discharged and have the appropriate security clearance to work.

At least 64 veterans have been identified for the program, he said.

“Every bit of work to help folks see this cemetery in a positive light is a help to us,” said Chris Piscitelli, director of cemetery and memorial programs for the Maryland Department of Veterans Affairs.

Usually, six to eight inmates work each day at both Garrison Forest and the Crownsville Veterans Cemetery, where inmates from Brockbridge Correctional Facility in Anne Arundel County began work in the spring. Eventually, the department hopes to have the program in place for all five state cemeteries.

The work ranges from re-pointing headstones, reseeding grass, blowing leaves, woodworking and more.

Many of the inmates in the program are on the verge of release or parole, and others are in partial release programs. To ensure inmates have an opportunity to use their new skills after they are fully released, the state Veterans Affairs has established three full-time positions at the cemeteries available exclusively for the inmates, Piscitelli said.

The inmates will not have trouble finding work to do at Garrison Forest. A total of 29,583 veterans are buried there. It’s also the third busiest veterans cemetery in the nation, Piscitelli said.

Fisher notes that he made more money working at the Central Laundry Facility, but when the veterans program began, he gladly took a pay cut. “I took a chance, and I like it,” he said.

Time spent with fellow veterans also gives them a chance to bond.

“Guys like us, we don’t talk a lot about being in the military,” he said. “It’s like a closed circle. We don’t talk to other dudes about it. When we get out here, we start reminiscing, and it brings out a lot of good qualities.”

Ernest Belcher, 51, served in the Army in Fort Riley, Kan., as a clerk and as a driver for a lieutenant colonel. Belcher said he’s honored to work on the project and get a chance to go outdoors for some peace and solitude.

“It’s a chance to get outside and do some work and help out some fellow veterans,” said Belcher, who is considering the job opportunity if he can relocate near Owings Mills.

Army veteran Timothy Brown, 48, of Dundalk, said it means a lot to him helping to preserve the memory of fallen veterans and, because of that, he gives it his all.

“One of the things sitting around the jail is that you’re useless; you’re wasting away,” he said. “We’d work out here seven days a week if they’d let us. We’d gladly come out here every day. We take pride in our work.”

Navy veteran Sylvester Woodland, 42 of Charles County, calls his work a “restoration and dignity project.”

“Not only does it gives us an opportunity to be looked at in a different light through the public eye, but it also gives us an opportunity to restore the graves of the fallen heroes before us,” he said.

Woodland’s father was a Vietnam War veteran who passed away Sept. 15. He didn’t have a chance to attend his funeral at Cheltenham Veterans Cemetery in Prince George’s County, but through this program, he has been offered a job to work at that cemetery.

“I’ll be able to go out and tend to my father’s grave,” he said. “I appreciate the opportunities this program has offered me because I didn’t have anything, really.”

New chance to serve

Honorably discharged veterans who are incarcerated at the state Central Laundry Facility minimum security jail in Sykesville are helping maintain the Garrison Forest Veterans Cemetery in Owings Mills. Here’s a list of accomplishments the inmates have completed since Sept. 2.

  • 75 percent of perimeter fence line cleared of brush and weeds.
  • Weeded and mulched all flower beds
  • Re-seeded barren areas throughout cemetery
  • Installed a track system to help set 200 headstones in new sections.
  • Realigned 150 headstones in the cemetery.
  • Placed straw on graves in finished sections.
  • Cleaned flower beds around three gazeboes.
  • Blown leaves daily at the front entrance and around the Administration Building & Committal Shelter.
  • Washed temp grave markers and cleaning bay areas.
  • Repaired railings on gazeboes

Source: Maryland Department of Public Safety and Corrections

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