Vietnam Veterans of America
When Luis left high school, he had almost no skills. The military, he was told, was the only way out of the barrio. So he joined the Army, where, he says, he learned three things: to be aggressive, to drink, and to fight. When he left the Army after combat tours in Afghanistan, he was good at all three, and within the culture of the military, he had been praised and promoted for his mastery of them. Unfortunately, there was not much use for those skills in civilian life, and Luis ended up in jail—more specifically, in the Pinal County Jail in Florence, a county seat in southern Arizona.
Luis was not alone. According to the U.S. Department in Justice, in 2011-12, the latest year for which there are comprehensive statistics, more than 181,500 military veterans were in jail or prison—about 8 percent of the total incarcerated population. Optimistic observers have been quick to remark that this represents a substantial decline from the reported all-time high of 24 percent in 1978, as indeed it does. However, at that time, when veterans of the World War II, Korean War, and Vietnam War drafts abounded, nearly one in five Americans was a veteran, a number that has fallen to about one in twelve.
By that measure, the number of incarcerated veterans is holding constant, and it represents failure all around: the failure of the system to accommodate and integrate returning veterans, the failure of some veterans, like Luis, to imagine a life without fighting, without anger. (As one returning vet put it, “In combat, rage can keep you alive. In civilian life, it can kill you.”) And a failure all around to connect veterans with programs that already exist to help them receive benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs and other agencies—benefits such as housing and educational assistance, to say nothing of health care, which many veterans do not claim in the belief that there are others who need them more than they do, a kind of misguided selflessness.
Often, veterans, like many other of the incarcerated, wind up in jail because they are warehoused there rather than in treatment facilities for such maladies as PTSD, substance abuse, social anxiety, and a bundle of other closely related troubles. All too often, returning vets who suffer from the aftereffects of combat-related trauma turn to self-medication. As one young man who spent time in a county jail chronicled, that is a recipe for disaster: one wrong word, one swung punch, one visit to jail, and a whole cycle begins. Where counseling and therapy might have been called for, it was ninety days in the slammer—a situation that law enforcement officers lament.
“We’re literally the mental health facility for the state,” one corrections officer told me, “and we’re not trained for it. The prisoners suffer, and we suffer.”
SETTING UP PODS
David Linderholm, an administrative officer in the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office, had seen this cycle before. He also had been following a growing movement, hatched by pioneering Judge Robert Russell in Buffalo, New York, and picked up here and there in jails across the country, to treat veterans differently from other prisoners while still being sure that they served their time. With a green light from his superiors in the PCSO, including his immediate boss, Deputy Chief Matthew Hedrick, Linderholm set up a “veterans pod” in the main county jail called HUMV, Housing Unit for Military Veterans. “Our aim,” Hedrick said, “is to return these men to the best version of themselves—the strong and disciplined young men in boot camp and in the field.”
Luis was an early resident, carefully selected by Linderholm using several criteria. First was that any HUMV occupant—most of them in jail for relatively short terms of thirty to ninety days—in fact be a veteran, no matter what the condition of discharge.
The second requirement was that the crime for which the veteran is serving time did not involve felonious violence. Members of the HUMV pod are typically in jail for far less serious offenses, things like vagrancy, public drunkenness, drug possession, and disorderly conduct.
The third was that the crime was not sexual in nature. That’s a practicality: Sex offenders rank at the bottom of the pecking order inside jail. Mixing what are regarded as dishonorable people with veterans seeking to restore their honor is simply too volatile a prospect.
Almost all the veteran inmates in the HUMV share a history of trauma. Most exhibit clear signs of PTSD, and for most there is a clear connection between that trauma and the criminal behavior that landed them in Florence. In short, there is a clear mental-health component to the program, recognizing the reality that indeed jails have become de facto psychiatric care facilities.
“There’s a kind of pendulum here,” says Linderholm. “If a veteran fails somehow in the veterans’ court system and winds up having to go to jail, it’s a pretty far fall to go right into the general population. It’s not so much a fall to go into the HUMV pod and be among other veterans, with people who understand what’s going on, who’ve been through it themselves, and who can possibly help.”
Treating veterans differently within penal institutions is part of a process that begins in court, with judges hearing cases involving veterans with an eye to taking into account stress disorders, addiction, and other circumstances. Yet, at last count, veterans’ treatment courts were still few, no more than 250 throughout the 3,400 jurisdictions in the country.
Scott D’Arman, a longtime VVA member based in Prescott, Arizona, has been doing some “circuit riding” in courts throughout the northern part of the state, logging thousands of miles of what he calls “windshield time” to make a case for veterans in the system. He allows that it’s been a tough sell, especially since officials in his home county have been resistant to the idea that veterans should be treated any differently from the general population.
Different Treatment, Different RESULTS
But where veterans are treated differently, the results are different. Linderholm recalls seeking out a prisoner on the floor of the Pinal County jail, one he had identified as a veteran. He told the man, who was white, to get his things and transfer over to the HUMV pod. An African-American prisoner standing nearby approached Linderholm and told him that one of his fellow inmates, also African-American, was a veteran. Linderholm sought that man out, too, and moved him to HUMV.
“I was surprised,” he says. “Jail is a system of favors and deals, but here was a guy who had nothing to gain by telling me about the other prisoner. It’s a measure of the respect that prisoners have for veterans that he did.”
The men in HUMV, a place draped in service flags and military decor, with slogans such as “Never forget their service” in constant view, have a few privileges that the other prisoners do not. They have a small library, for instance, with books that they can check out any time, unlike the restricted hours of the library in the larger jail. They have a microwave oven and can prepare snacks whenever they wish. They have a ping-pong table. They wear camouflage jail scrubs rather than the visible-from-afar orange scrubs of the other inmates.
But apart from that, what makes the men in the pod different from those elsewhere in the jail is the fact that, in a way, they’re organizing their own therapy. They are taking responsibility and owning the deeds that have landed them in trouble and working out ways to avoid similar bad patches in the future.
There are no inmate officers in jail, no ranks transferred from earlier service, although a natural hierarchy has been observed at work, with older veterans, typically from the Vietnam War era, serving as guides to younger ones who have seen service in places such as Iraq and Afghanistan.
“These men have already done their time in the service,” Linderholm said. “We’re not trying to return them to that—this isn’t the military. We are trying to give them the tools so that they can get themselves sorted out, with our help.”
One of those tools in a regime that has come to be called “collaborative justice” is therapy, and there’s plenty of that. Another is the relative calm of the HUMV pod. Jail is a chaotic place, governed by fear and stress. The absence of that negative atmosphere can work wonders all on its own.
Still another is a support system of mentoring, counseling, and friendship, which has come from an active population of veterans in the neighboring community, most with service in the Vietnam War, who volunteer their time. That component of veterans helping veterans, without regard for rank or for era of service, has been of critical importance everywhere it has been put in place. “You’ve got to have vets working with vets,” New York Judge Robert Russell told The Veteran. “You’ve got to have vets encouraging vets.”
Linderholm put the veterans in the outside community to work doing just that. “We went out and recruited them actively,” he says. “A lot of them are accomplished businesspeople and others who have made good in the world. Sharing their stories and providing an example has really helped the vet inmates.”
Closely monitoring the results of that interaction, Matt Hedrick immediately noted a difference. “They were criminals when they went into the pod,” he says. “After two weeks, the literal countenance of their faces changed. They straightened up. They became veterans. They trusted their brothers, and that made all the difference.”
Linderholm also works to connect HUMV pod members with VA programs that they might not have known about, as well as to be sure that they have their military-related paperwork in order. In some instances, he notes, some veterans who “flunked out” of service owing to mental or disciplinary issues have found themselves ineligible for VA benefits. In such cases, he tries to have their cases reviewed and reclassified.
So far, says Linderholm, the HUMV program has “graduated” about forty inmates in cohorts of no more than a few inmates at a time. And so far, the program seems to have had success in the most measurable way possible: There have been no cases of recidivism, no return to jail for anyone who has worn those camo scrubs.
One of the key components in that success rate, social workers maintain, is the community reentry piece, and especially in connecting veterans with local social service and mental health organizations. Through Cenpatico, a contracted health and services provider, for instance, Luis was able to find housing within a day of being released from the HUMV pod, and to find a job within two weeks. Still on probation, he’s shown no signs of backsliding, and Linderholm considers him one of the greatest success stories the program can show to the outside world.
So successful has the HUMV program proved that other jails in Arizona are paying attention. At a recent conference of corrections and law enforcement officers, after Linderholm and Deana Champagne, of Cenpatico, presented an argument for the pods, several sheriffs and senior officers in attendance—most of them veterans—professed interest in putting veterans’ pods into practice in their own institutions.
In time, women veterans may be brought into the system as well, though the number of female veteran inmates is far smaller than that of the male population. Elsewhere in the country, Veterans’ Courts have included women. The first graduate of the St. Louis County Veterans’ Court was a woman who had been in trouble for drug addiction and related behavior, and who had the charges against her dropped after completing a fifteen-month treatment program in lieu of jail time.
Reform has been a long time coming, and it’s a welcome step in the rehabilitation of service members who have run afoul of the law. Says Matt Hedrick: “They’re veterans. They did what was required of them. We should be honored to serve them.”
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