Incarcerated veterans often face service-related
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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
"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
* 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
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.
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