Incarcerated veterans often face service-related illnesses (must register to view original article)


Associated Press

SACRAMENTO - Thousands of California vets will celebrate Veterans Day on Thursday from behind prison walls.

There they often face service-related health problems beyond those of
other inmates. And while the nation has an entire health system set up to help vets, veterans generally lose their rights to specialized medical care behind bars, qualifying only for the same medical treatment as any other inmate.

That's a particular concern in California, said state Sen. Gloria Romero, who hosted a hearing into the issue Tuesday, because the prison medical system has been repeatedly criticized for spending vast amounts of money to provide poor health care.

California's 2.3 million veterans make up more than 6 percent of the state's population, the largest vet population in any state. But estimates conflict on how many are incarcerated, witnesses told Romero's Senate Select Committee on Corrections.

The Department of Corrections says about 3 percent, or 4,800 inmates, claim to have served, down from the nearly 9 percent the department estimated four years ago. Two surveys of inmates at San Quentin State Prison put the proportion of veteran inmates at about 11 percent.

There's a stigma to reporting military service, in part because of a false belief it will hinder parole or get them sent to a tougher prison, said Jay Atkinson of the department's offender information branch. But the number of incarcerated inmates has fallen in California and nationally, he said, partly as a result of demographic changes including the aging of Vietnam veterans.

On both sides of prison walls, veterans tend to have more health problems, requiring more costly care.

The problems are particularly poignant because vets deserve honor, and because many of their woes stem from their military service, Romero said.

"No matter what they may have done, they served their country" and may now be paying the price, said Romero, a Democrat from Los Angeles.

Among problems outlined by witnesses:

* Half of paroled vets were infected with Hepatitis C that can cause liver failure or cancer, a virus often acquired from combat surgery or substance abuse, found University of California San Francisco professor Kimberly Shafer, who heads the Hepatitis C in California Prisons Project.

* Vets exposed to the Agent Orange herbicide dumped on Vietnamese jungles may suffer cancer, diabetes, skin and nerve problems.

* Combat can cause mental illness, triggering criminal and anti-social behavior, testified David Foy of Pepperdine University, a researcher with the National Center on Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Witnesses cited a recent study in the New England Journal of Medicine suggesting one in six returning veterans of the Iraq war may have mental illness.

The federal Bureau of Justice Statistics reported nearly five years ago that, nationwide, 35 percent of inmates who once served in the military were convicted of homicide or rape, compared to 20 percent of other inmates. Veterans were typically sent to prison longer for the same crimes - as much as 50 months longer when it came to sentences for violent crimes. But they were less likely to be serving time for drug offenses.

Romero criticized the department for doing a poor job of keeping track of which inmates are veterans, and said it needs to do a better job of linking vets with benefits and medical care once they are released.

New York and Florida have found the most success when they paired their inmate education, employment, job and life skills training with programs offered by local veterans groups.

That has also been successful at San Quentin State Prison.

Witnesses said the approach works because vets inside and out share a bond from their military experience. The outside contact, they said, reminds incarcerated veterans their service was valued and that they have a future once they are released.

Tom Baxter
USAV 1967-69

Tom Baxter n'assument aucune responsabilite quant a la confidentialite et l'integrite du present courriel en raison des risques d'interception inherents a l'Internet. Pour cette raison, toute opinion exprimee au terme des presentes ne reflete pas necessairement celle de Tom Baxter.