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Advocates Say Imprisoned Veterans Should Have Access to VA

Members of the Incarcerated Vietnam Veterans of America (IVVA), Chapter 1065, at the Correctional Training Facility (CTF) salute before folding the U.S. flag. (Photo: Inside CDCR)
Members of the Incarcerated Vietnam Veterans of America (IVVA), Chapter 1065, at the Correctional Training Facility (CTF) salute before folding the U.S. flag. (Photo: Inside CDCR)

Two veterans' service organizations are backing Senate legislation requiring prison officials to give the Veterans Affairs Department reasonable access to a prisoner who has served in the military.

John Rowan, president of the Vietnam Veterans Association, on Tuesday informed Sens. Chuck Grassley, a Republican from Iowa who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, and Dick Durbin, a Democrat from New York and fellow panel member, of the organization's support for the bill, while Paralyzed Veterans of America on Thursday notified the lawmakers of its support.

"Because of its long history with veterans and criminal justice issues, [Vietnam Veterans of America] has always believed that VA access to incarcerated veterans is especially needed by those transitioning from incarceration to life beyond prison walls, Rowan wrote in the letter, a copy of which was provided to Military.com.

Carl Blake, associate executive director for Government Relations for PVA, said the group offers its full support to the bill.

"A veteran utilizing resources such as mental health care, substance abuse treatment and education benefits significantly increases the likelihood of successful re-entry into society, he told the Senators in a letter.

The Senate legislation, which passed out of the committee with bipartisan support, is aimed primarily at rolling back some of the onerous mandatory sentences that in recent years have been determined to be too harsh or unfair.

Under so-called "three strikes laws that states began adopting in the 1990s judges were required to sentence individuals convicted a third time of certain crimes to set penalties. Though initially intended to target perpetrators of serious and violent crimes, the laws eventually resulted in the incarceration of non-violent, petty criminals for sentences up to and including life.

A Veterans of Foreign Wars spokesman said the organization is still studying at the bill. The provision related to veterans' access to VA takes up about a single page in the 81-page bill.

The VA did not respond to Military.com's request for comment.

Dr. Tom Berger, executive director of the VVA's Veterans' Health Council, said the Senate bill will make it possible for imprisoned veterans to learn about and apply for VA healthcare and benefits, including employment, housing and other services, before they're released. This will make it easier for them to reintegrate, he said.

But, he said, "the devil will be in the details of just how the VA responds to the bill, if it's passed.

"Because we do not want the [VA representative] … just showing up two months before the guys get out with a bunch of brochures, Berger said. "We want to make sure there is a connection regarding employment, housing and most important, health care, including mental health.

"Some of these folks have been behind walls for a long time, and they're going to  have a great deal of difficulty transitioning, so we want to make sure their mental and physical health is taken care of, he added.

"VVA has a long history of working with incarcerated veterans, Berger said. "I think we're the only congressionally chartered veterans' service organization that has chapters inside the walls at a number of institutions around the country.

VVA's history with imprisoned veterans goes back to the earliest days of the organization. In testimony before Congress leading up to being granted a federal charter -- about seven years after it began organizing -- the group said meeting the special needs of women, minority and incarcerated veterans is part of its mission.

The PVA, in its letter to Grassley and Durbin, said the legislation would also benefit the Bureau of Prisons.

"As BoP strives with limited resources to implement re-entry programs throughout its infrastructure, VA efforts in this arena will be a welcome addition to the system and would prevent veterans from falling through the cracks, Blake wrote. "Most importantly, this provision gives transitioning veterans a better chance at walking out with their head held high again.

-- Bryant Jordan can be reached at bryant.jordan@military.com. Follow him on Twitter at @bryantjordan.

Related Topics

Headlines Veteran Benefits Veteran Health Care Department of Veteran Affairs Congress Legislation Mental Health Veterans Groups Bryant Jordan

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