VA advocates for vets at correctional conference

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On any given day in the United States, there are an average of 181,500 incarcerated veterans. This makes up about 7 percent of the national prison population, according to the Department of Justice.

This presents a challenge for both criminal justice professionals who are inexperienced with Veterans’ issues and Veterans Affairs trying to reach out to incarcerated veterans.

In order to bridge that gap, and foster understanding between the two groups, the VA has sent a team of experts to the Accepted Correctional Health Conference. This is a research conference that focuses on issues surrounding the incarcerated population. “This is the first year that there has been a really big content presence around veteran issues,” said Jessica Blue-Howells, National Coordinator of Healthcare for Re-entry Veterans Program. “This is important for both veterans who are incarcerated, but also veterans who may be at risk of exposure to law enforcement.”

“Dr. Andrea Finlay has been presenting her research at this conference for years and noticed that there was a lack of focus on Veterans issues,” Blue-Howells said. “She reached out to the broader veterans justice programs and thought that it would be a great way to encourage more awareness within the criminal justice community.”

This year’s conference featured several panel discussions led by VA and veteran-focused organizations. These sessions ranged on topics from Veterans Treatment Courts, law enforcement interacting with veterans, female justice-involved veterans, and improving employment opportunities for veterans with felonies. While many of these discussions dealt with veteran-focused issues, attendees included experts from the general criminal justice community. “As a peer-reviewed conference, this is a difficult place to have your ideas and presentation accepted,” said Blue-Howells, “so we have really worked both ends of the field to create interest among the conference organizers and to advocate for interest internally to the VHA. Conferences like these bring us into contact with researchers of the general corrections populations and teaching about veterans is important because its relatively unknown to researchers.”

Participation in this conference was an important step for HCRV program, according to Blue-Howells. Previous to this program standing up 10 years ago, there was no coordinated VA outreach to veterans who were incarcerated. “We took on a model created by Veteran Service Organizations to build a full nationwide network across state and federal prisons,” she said. “It has come a long way, and this conference is a great indication of that.”

Another program that has had a key role in the VA participation in this conference is the Veterans Justice Outreach program, or VJO. This program has three primary objectives. The first is to train with law enforcement and Crisis Intervention teams on how to deal with veterans. The second goal is establishing and working with Veteran Treatment Courts and preparing veterans who may be going through the veterans justice system for the first time. Finally, VJO identifies and works with incarcerated veterans to ensure that they are receiving healthcare and support, whether in local county jails or state prisons.

“I think there is a strong push in communities throughout the country to get veterans the services that they need,” said Matthew Stimmel, Clinical Psychologist and Veterans Justice Outreach Specialist at the Palo Alto VA. “They realize that some of the problems that led them to contact with the justice system are treatable problems, and often the result of their service, and not necessarily because they are bad people.”

The VJO and HCRV fall within the VA’s Homeless Veterans program. Often times, justice-involved veterans are susceptible to homelessness. “Having any kind of criminal justice history, whether it’s a single arrest or a long-term incarceration in prison, is a huge risk factor for becoming homeless,” said Blue-Howells. “Whether its access to housing or to maintain housing, it’s difficult to achieve either if in your credit record, you have a criminal history.”

Justice-involved veterans are also a concern for the VA’s top clinical priority: preventing Veteran suicide.
“What we’re finding with some new data and new partnerships is that our veterans have a particularly high risk of attempting and completing suicide,” said Blue-Howells. “That is why we try to incorporate mental health and veterans peer support.”

Besides clinical and administrative staff representing the VA at this year’s conference, several Veterans spoke who have been on the other side of the bars. Peer Support Specialist Raymond Perez had a history of legal troubles following his service as an infantryman in the Army. “After I got out, I struggled with a number of issues that I was in denial about, and I chose to self-medicate. I dealt with addiction, homelessness, and ultimately incarceration,” said Perez.

After his release from incarceration, Perez turned to VA compensated work therapy, and strived to not only improve his own life, but help other Veterans turn their lives around. “What I do is go to different prisons throughout the state of Arizona and I inspire Veterans with hope,” said Perez. “I let them know ‘I’ve been there. I’ve been incarcerated. If I can get out of it, you can too.’ Each and every one of us have to decide for ourselves when they are ready to make a change. My job is to walk alongside them and remind them that there is hope.”

And it’s helping Veterans upon re-entry where the programs align at the conference. “Reintegration can be difficult, but that’s one of the focuses that we have: trying to get our Veterans stably-housed, get them linked to treatment, and meet their employment needs. We’re lucky at the VA to have all of those needs met within one organization, said Stimmel. ”It’s an uphill battle, for sure, and we’re doing the best we can to meet the needs of our Veterans.