Veterans in prison, and how to keep them out of it

Jeff Severns Guntzel
Senior reporter
Public Insight Network

We don’t know exactly how many Iraq and Afghanistan veterans are in our jails and prisons. The best data we have on the veteran populations in federal and state prisons comes from the federal government and was released in 2004, when both wars were young. Jails sometimes don’t even ask if an inmate is a veteran.

What we do know is that part of that incarcerated veteran population is certainly suffering, like so many on the outside, from the signature injuries of Iraq and Afghanistan: Traumatic brain injury and post-traumatic stress disorder. On the outside, veterans, if they have been honorably discharged, can get treatment and disability benefits in the form of monthly checks from the Department of Veterans Affairs for their TBI and PTSD diagnoses. If a veteran is convicted of a felony and sentenced to more than 60 days in prison, any disability money is reduced to a maximum of just over $100 a month.

Cynthia Boyd is a senior scientific director at the San Diego branch of the Defense and Veterans Brain Injury Center (DVBIC), where doctors and scientists have been researching traumatic brain injury and caring for veterans and active-duty service members since 1992.

Boyd says it is critical that we not dismiss veterans who wind up in prison as criminals and forget about them. ”I do not feel that this is a predatory population. This is a population that is reacting sometimes to misperceived situations,” she says.

“When one has acute and active symptoms of PTSD, they are hyper-aroused and ready for action. They act out and get into fights.”

Add alcohol, she says, and it only gets worse. (Binge drinking among recently returned Iraq and Afghanistan veterans has been a major problem.)

Boyd calls it “going from hero to zero,” and she worries for veterans who might be recovering from TBI or in the throes of PTSD and find themselves suddenly locked up — often for actions just like those of countless other vets on the outside who were lucky enough to have pulled back from the brink before going too far. In most cases, opportunities for the unique treatment veterans need to heal vanish when the cell doors close.

How to reach those veterans and give them what they need? The first obstacle is knowing how many veterans are locked up in the first place. The most current data on state and federal prisons is eight years old and, as Boyd found when she started working to set up a special court for veterans in her community (one of more than 100 across the country, where the special needs and circumstances of veterans are a factor in sentencing), “sometimes jails and prisons dont even take a census as to how many veterans they have — so an intake form might not even have a check-box that says, ‘Are you a veteran?’”

Sister Kateri Koverman, a social worker who works extensively with incarcerated veterans, makes a point of finding veterans in prison and helping them. She worked for Catholic Relief Services in Vietnam during the war. It was there that she first saw the effects of combat on the mental health of young men and women. After years of working in war zones — after Vietnam she moved on to Ethiopia, El Salvador and Sierra Leone — she was diagnosed with PTSD herself. She has made it her life’s mission to help people heal from the many layers of war trauma.

“I go in to the jails to work with veterans because those guys aren’t getting any treatment at all,” she says. “Many of them are less-than-honorably discharged, which for me is a very sad reality. Having been in Vietnam, I know well that so much about how an incident is written up [in the military] depends on your commanding officer. You could have the same action and one officer would say, ‘Go get a good night’s sleep and we’ll talk about this tomorrow,’ while somebody else might say, you know, ‘That’s cause for Article 15,’” non-judicial punishment. “Those things are with you for life.”

Koverman says she is encouraged by the veteran-only courts — like the one Boyd worked to establish in San Diego — that have been popping up across the country. Returning veterans often lose control bit by bit, she says, and we’ve got to get at them early in order to help. “Some guys that I knew in Vietnam are serving life sentences. It was DUIs to start with, then fights in the local bar or physical abuse of a significant other which led to felonies,” she says. “We did nothing for those men at the time.”

Veterans courts, which are not without controversy, can provide opportunities for veterans as they walk, step by step, into the post-war abyss. “We have to deal with these men and women coming back from deployment,” Koverman says. “The VA can’t solve everybody’s issues. If troubled veterans can get into [a veterans] court, then instead of serving time in jail or prison, they can complete a treatment program and get their felony expunged, which is extremely important because trying to get a good job with a felony on your record is hard.

“Until we as a society can come to realize that, anybody in this all-volunteer army, … we owe services and opportunities. They deserve the best.”