The benefits of housing units for military veterans

Designated programs and resources can minimize recidivism and bolster community reintegration


Veteran inmates or incarcerated veterans are inmates that have been identified and verified by the jail administration as having served in the United States Armed Forces.

Incarcerated individuals are held in a correctional institution (county jail) due to their arrest for criminal violations. They may be held for pending trials, sentenced to serve county time, or in some states, such as California, serve their sentence in county jails instead of state prisons for non-violent, non-serious and non-sex-related crimes. [1]

Some veterans have sustained both visible and invisible wounds such as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). They resort to self-medicate with alcohol and substance abuse to numb the pain of experiencing the horrors of war. [2] PTSD if not treated can be destructive and significantly affects relationships and employment situations. [3] Without proper medication or counseling, self-medication may increase a veteran’s mental health problems of anxiety, depression, irritability, aggressiveness and anger. [3] As such, some veterans may fall into the rabbit hole of the criminal justice system via arrests for domestic violence, assault, alcohol and narcotics violations.

In 2020, the Theo Lacy Jail, a branch jail within the Orange County Sheriff’s Department in Orange County, California, established a veterans housing model for incarcerated veterans.
In 2020, the Theo Lacy Jail, a branch jail within the Orange County Sheriff’s Department in Orange County, California, established a veterans housing model for incarcerated veterans. (Orange County Sheriff’s Department)

The National Institute of Corrections (NIC) has identified various law enforcement correctional facilities that have adopted and implemented housing unit for military veterans (HUMV) programs that include San Francisco County Jail, Cuyahoga County (Cleveland) County Jail, Kings County Regional Justice Center (Washington), Orange County Jail (Florida) and Middlesex Jail and House of Correction, Massachusetts. [2].

The NIC has found that resources and therapy provided to incarcerated veterans are correlated with the reduction of recidivism and positive societal reintegration. [2]

HUMV program in Orange County, California

In addition to the aforementioned correctional facilities, the Theo Lacy Jail, a branch jail within the Orange County Sheriff’s Department in Orange County, California, established a similar veterans housing model for incarcerated veterans. [4]

The HUMV program at the Theo Lacy Jail provides incarcerated veterans an opportunity to obtain resources such as employment workshops, financial planning classes, substance abuse and psychological services, and Veteran Administration’s benefits. A sector in Module I at Theo Lacy was transformed into a patriotic-themed housing unit that included murals on the walls and flags representing each branch of the United States Armed Forces.

The HUMV program was recognized by the media and Congressman Lou Correa and Senator Tom Umberg.

Congressman Lou Correa, who represents California’s 46th Congressional District and serves as a member of the House Veterans Affairs Committee commended Orange County Sheriff Don Barnes for the development of the HUMV program: “God knows what they see out there on the battlegrounds, and yet when they come back to society, we expect them to turn all of that off and to be good, model citizens. We forget to ask them, 'What are those invisible scars that you continue to carry in your soul and in your heart?' As a veteran, we’re going to put you in front of the line to make sure that you get rehabilitated, to make sure that we help you heal those invisible scars, those wounds that you have. You’ve earned our respect, and we’re going to take care of you when you get back.” [4]

Senator Tom Umberg, a retired army colonel, also praised Sheriff Don Barnes for “having the vision to invest in those who have dedicated at least a portion of their lives to our safety, our national security. It is up to us to give them the tools to make sure that whatever mistake they made, that mistake is corrected and that they return to society as complete individuals as they possibly can.” [4].

A sector in Module I at Theo Lacy was transformed into a patriotic-themed housing unit that included murals on the walls and flags representing each branch of the United States Armed Forces.
A sector in Module I at Theo Lacy was transformed into a patriotic-themed housing unit that included murals on the walls and flags representing each branch of the United States Armed Forces. (Orange County Sheriff's Office)

How arrestees, inmates enter the HUMV program

To identify an arrestee or inmate who has served in the military, the initial booking form has a section for the arresting officer/deputy to mark. From that information, coupled with an inmate’s request or DD-214 (military discharge document), their veteran status is vetted through Veterans Affairs. The incarcerated veterans must meet certain criteria, including criminal history, charges and behavior, to be considered for the program. Once approved, incarcerated veterans are placed in specific housing located within the Theo Lacy Jail.

Deputy G. Freeman maintains the operation and continuity of the HUMV program. He manages HUMV inmates’ issues and ensures that the incarcerated veterans comprehend and adhere to guidelines and expectations that qualify them to participate in the program. The veterans’ compliance with the HUMV program protocol allows for an environment that helps them glean resources, education and knowledge to support them post-release and mitigate recidivism.

The Orange County Inmate Services Division is responsible for offering HUMV program content, resources and coordinating volunteers from groups such as the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs, Tierney Center for Veterans Outreach, Working Wardrobes, Inmate Services, OC HCA, OC Public Defender’s Office and Santa Ana Community College.

Resources provided to HUMV participants

Veterans Affairs provides the following information for incarcerated veterans:

Incarcerated veteransVeterans can sometimes run into issues with law enforcement and the criminal justice system resulting in incarceration. It is important justice-involved veterans are familiar with VA benefits including what VA benefits they may still be eligible to receive, what happens to the VA benefits they are already receiving if they become incarcerated, and what programs are available to assist them with reintegrating back into the community once released from incarceration

Health Care for Re-entry Veterans (HCRV) ProgramThe HCRV Program is designed to help incarcerated Veterans successfully reintegrate back into the community after their release. A critical part of HCRV is providing information to veterans while they are incarcerated, so they can plan for re-entry themselves. A primary goal of the HCRV program is to prevent veterans from becoming homeless once they are reintegrated back into the community. 

Veteran Justice Outreach (VJO) InitiativeThe VJO initiative is designed to help veterans avoid unnecessary criminalization of mental illness and extended incarceration by ensuring eligible justice-involved veterans receive timely access to VA health care, specifically mental health and substance use services (if clinically indicated) and other VA services and benefits as appropriate.

The impact of HUMV at the O.C. jail

The objectives of the HUMV program are to provide resources to incarcerated veterans to minimize recidivism and enhance community reintegration. Our data show that 75 incarcerated veterans have participated in the program since its inception in 2020. Fifty incarcerated veterans have been released from the O.C. jail and returned to society. Out of the 50 released, five have been reincarcerated. Statistically, it appears recidivism has been minimized.

For the 45 former veteran inmates, was their successful reintegration into society attributed to the HUMV program? To answer that question, here are letters from two former inmates:

One former inmate indicated the program had given him hope and resources that have enabled him to become a productive member of society. He wrote, "When I first arrived at O.C. jail, I felt my life was at a dead end. But through participation in counseling, direct access to the VA Veterans Outreach and the Tierney Center for Veteran Services, coupled with a renewed sense of personal accountability, my life is on a path of success. Not since many years ago back in my service with the U.S. Navy did I feel such a strong desire for my personal sobriety and success in my life."

Another formerly incarcerated veteran provided his perspective of the program: "HUMV is a completely different environment nothing like where I just came from (general population). There is no tolerance. The rules are followed, no exceptions. The classes keep us busy mostly designed for re-entry back into society. Providing us with a crazy amount of resources. The staff here shows genuine concern. They have all gone above and beyond my expectations. In class, we share life experiences. The topic of barriers comes up and together the barriers are taken down. Pain is shared in confidence, liberating therapy begins much-needed healing. I have a new attitude towards correction officers (deputies), public defenders, and a judge. I am leaving a better person with a better agenda. I am forever grateful to everyone involved."

Conclusion

The general correctional paradigm is to provide rehabilitation to criminal offenders. One group of criminal offenders that may be more likely to be rehabilitated are veterans.

Regardless of branch of service, veterans have been behaviorally and mentally indoctrinated via training in the aspect of order and discipline. Hence, incarcerated veterans’ programs can be effective in mitigating recidivism and assisting veterans to effectively reintegrate into society with resources and support.

If your correctional facility has an ample amount of incarcerated veterans, consider adopting a housing unit for incarcerated veterans and incorporate resources and programs to effectuate the reduction of recidivism and bolstering of societal reintegration. By doing so, we give a sincere meaning to “Thank you for your service.”

References

1. California Legislative Information (2011). AB-109 Criminal Justice Alignment.

2. Benos D, Edelman B. (2018). Barracks behind bars: In veteran-specific housing units, veterans help veterans help themselves. U.S. Department of Justice, National Institute of Corrections.

3. Mayo Clinic Staff (2020). Post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

4. Hardesty G. (2019). Orange County Sheriff’s Department opens its first jail units for U.S. veterans. Behind the Badge.com.

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