At my institution there is an entire dorm dedicated to housing veterans. While every bed in the unit isn’t filled only with veterans, every bed is made available should they be needed. It’s an excellent idea. The men in the vet program are deserving of our respect, help, consideration, and should be afforded special priviledges when possible while incarcerated here. They’re heroes.
Sadly, there are staff that don’t feel “inmates” deserve any special consideration or priviledge. I was once told this matter-of-factly by a guard during a conversation we were having about the military. When I thought about it afterward I realized that it’s a common staff position. It’s a key barrier preventing staff from assisting inmates toward the path of reform. Worse, it hinders inmate trust in authority.
Resistance to special considerations for incarcerated veterans isn’t unique to my facility. My communications with inmates and outside organizations dedicated to helping veterans has shown me that this is a common theme. I find it interesting that others are quick to judge, yet fail to see their own shortcomings. In an NBC News article, Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple, of New York, talked about the resistance he encountered from his own staff when attempting to create one of the first veterans housing units in the nation.
Despite initial resistance and objections, there are hundreds of veterans housing units at prisons and jails across the country. From Arizona to New York, vets in these special housing units receive vet-to-vet support while attending custom programs designed to assist them with locating housing, jobs, and counseling when needed. At some facilities veterans train service dogs dedicated to assisting veterans with PTSD or may participate in an honor guard. Facilities such as mine allow vets to raise the flag every day and to attend vet centric programs designed to address the personal needs of veterans.
A number of veteran inmate programs partner with outside organizations dedicated to assisting vets in succeeding upon release. Soldier On, a non-profit involved with homeless vets, provides transitional housing in a similar manner that half-way houses do for other inmates.
Most importantly, a comraderie from having served and the universal understanding shared by veterans for one another reinforces a bond forged from a common background. Perhaps it is the reason that the recidivism rate for veterans who’ve experienced prison life through the lense of a veterans housing unit is about 5%, far lower than the nearly 60% for all inmates.
PTSD And Justice
In the Summer of 1866, Maryland and District of Columbia newspapers carried stories about overcrowding in the Maryland Federal Prison where a full 60% of the inmates were veterans of the Union Army. While most readers asked themselves, “Why are there so many people in prison?”, the real question that should have been asked was, “Why do so many people who served this country bravely and sacrificed so much, now find themselves incarcerated?” There is no single answer, but we have discovered over the years and through many wars that there is a common element served by this 60 percent and those who subsequently served in the military: the extreme stress of military service, especially combat.
It has been my experience at three different Ohio Penal Institutions that veterans still compose a disproportionate share of those in prison. Though the numbers are not as great as those experienced in 1866, veterans generally compose 10% of the inmate population, while they represent less than 1% of the American population.
In 1866, there was no name for the long term effects of war, but today we know it as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). This psychosocial affliction manifests itself in all manner of aberrant behavior from extreme violence to sexual misconduct to total withdrawal. One would think that after 160 years having passed since the problem was first recognized, resulting in disproportionate incarceration, the courts would have acknowledged the psychosocial root that caused defendant veterans to engage in unacceptable anti-social conduct and, in many cases, would have ordered treatment than imprisonment. But they have not.
The Federal Courts finally recognized the importance of honorable military service. In 2009, the Supreme Court of the United States unanimously held that a defense counsel’s failure to present evidence of an inmate’s honorable military service clearly constituted ineffective assistance of counsel, a violation of the United States constitution. The Supreme Court noted that such a failure to raise the fact that the defendant was a veteran with honorable service was prejudicial to the defendant. It follows by logical extension that a court is obligated to take into account that same honorable military service and its psychological ramifcations when formulating and imposing sentence. (See Porter v. McCollum, SCOTUS, 558 US 30, 130 S.Ct. 447, 20 November 2009.) It took a tenacious letter writing campaign by a single incarcerated veteran and four years to finally include in the Ohio criminal code, the following: “2929.12(F), The sentencing court shall consider the offender’s military service record and whether the offender has an emotional, mental, or physical condition that is traceable to the offender’s service in the armed forces of the United States and that was a contributing factor in the offender’s commission of the offense or the offenses.”
This sounds as if it would be necessary and expected to ensure veterans receive Fifth and Fourteenth Constitutionally guaranteed due process of law, but the statute fails to direct the courts what actions to take if PTSD is determined to be a factor in the offender’s conduct. Furthermore, the statute does not specify who or what agency may be relied upon to determine the existence of PTSD, and finally, there is no penalty for a court that ignores this statute. If a veteran is not aware of this statutory requirement and does not challenge an errant court on direct appeal, the veteran will live forever with a sentence that he or she does not deserve.
Obviously, it is important for every verteran to know his rights and what 2929.12(F) directs a court to do. It is also important for veterans not to be self-depricating and embarassed for having committed a crime and to not want to implicate his branch of service. The military has both good and bad impacts of all service members, but seeking help is an important factor in rehabilitation. Fortunately, there are blogs such as this that provide a venue that may inform veterans, Ohio Veterans Services, and the Department of Veterans Affairs.
*As a footnote to this article, each Ohio county has, as an option, the ability to establish veterans’ courts. The few that are currently operational focus on drug offenses with an emphasis on treatment and diversion rather than punishment. See http://www.ohiovet.gov/main/ohio-veterans-courts.html.