gettyimages 482706985 Incarcerated veterans and the VA: getting help before and after jail

Two convicts from a chain gang have a confrontation with their guards in a scene from a film, circa 1930. (Photo by Vintage Images/Getty Images)

By Jonathan Kaupanger

My brother, who was probably struggling with a mental illness, was in and out of jail until an early death in 1993.  Today his crimes would most likely fall under the unnecessary criminalization of mental illness category.  After the first time in jail, he just sort of gave up.

The VA has two specialized programs to make sure veterans don’t fall into that same trap: Health Care for Reentry Veterans (HCRV) and Veterans Justice Outreach (VJO). These programs are not legal services — the Department of Veterans Affairs can’t provide that.  Instead, they focus more on prevention.

The specialists in HCRV work with veterans approaching release dates from state and federal prisons. Through this program, the VA helps to assess needs veterans may have once they are released.  When veterans leave prison, they are provided individualized follow-up to help with medical, mental health and social services, including searches for employment.  Since 2007, the VA has reached out to nearly a thousand state and federal prisons — and helped more than 73,000 vets.  The HCRV web page offers information for incarcerated vets in each state, including directions on what to do as they approach possible parole.

On the other side of things are VJO specialists — one of which can be found at every VA Medical Center.  Their goal is to keep veterans from extended incarceration via direct outreach, assessment, and case management help in local courts and jails.  VJO specialists are affiliated with Veterans Treatment Courts and other veteran-focused court programs.  They also provide veteran-focused training to law enforcers dealing with veterans.

Veterans helped by VJO and HCRV staffers often have mental health and substance use disorders at rates that are higher than vets seen elsewhere in the VA system.  But they are also typically more willing to get help.  92 percent look to the VA for mental health support and 72 percent get help for substance abuse though the VA, according to a department fact sheet.

It is not, though, always easy for the VA to find vet in prison systems.  In an attempt to better make that connection, the department created the Veterans Reentry Search Service (VRSS) — a tool that lets prison and jail staff identify inmates with a military service record.  Before it began using the VRSS, the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation estimated that 2.7 percent of its inmate population were military veterans.  The actual number turned out to be 7.7 percent — a difference of some 5,000 inmates who would otherwise not been pointed toward help once they were released.

If you would like help for a veteran who’s getting ready for release from a state or federal prison, you can use these state-specific resource guides which will list ways to find work, housing and other services.  The state or community HCRV specialist can be found here.

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