ORLANDO – They send teams into jails and prisons, looking for inmates who may have committed a series of crimes: using drugs, assault and battery, reckless driving.
Once they’ve identified these inmates, the legal team goes back to the justice system to see if the sentences given to those inmates can be reduced.
They’re looking for very specific inmates, though. These inmates are combat veterans who served in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which have now been going on for nine years. These soldiers have come home, and often need emotional and psychological counseling, said Fanita Jackson, the OEF (Operation Enduring Freedom) and Iraqi Freedom program manager for the Orlando Veterans Administration Medical Center in Baldwin Park.
Without that counseling and assistance, she said, these soldiers sometimes fall into patterns of behavior that get them in trouble with the law. And the VA, she said, wants the justice system to understand that veterans face very unique challenges and should not be in jail, but instead getting the counseling and help they so badly need.
“This is one of our new programs, and it’s called the Incarcerated Veterans program,” Jackson said. “We have a veterans justice outreach coordinator to make sure veterans are identified when they’re in prison, and make sure they are going to get the help they need.”
The program sends people into the jails and prisons to find inmates who are also veterans. The staff interview the inmates, record what happened to them and how they ended up behind bars, and then go back to the legal system to see if they can get their sentence reduced – or get them released altogether.
“We work with justices and prosecutors get them a fair sentence,” Jackson said, adding that the legal system and the Department of Corrections need to take into consideration that soldiers returning from combat face pressures and challenges that many in the general public do not.
“A lot of times, our veterans have issues that unfortunately will get them incarcerated,” she said. “We want to work with them, to see if there is anything we can do within the judicial system to help them. We also want to reach out to law enforcement officials, so they know how to react to retiring veterans.”
She noted, for example, that some returning veterans have been arrested for driving recklessly. That may be because they had been trained in Iraq or Afghanistan not to stop their jeep for any reason, since doing so could be extremely dangerous if there are grenades on the ground or snipers in the area. The soldiers bring back that mindset and have a hard time dropping it, Jackson said.
“You’re adjusting to being back in civilian society, but when they were in combat, they were trained to just keep driving and not to stop,” she said. “Some of them are suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.”
At the same time, local law enforcement deputies may not be aware of this, so they simply arrest the veteran. That’s why the Incarcerated Veterans programs tries to work with law enforcement officials to educate them about the behavior that some veterans may exhibit when attempting to make the rocky transition from combat solider to civilian life.
“We have officers on the street who have no idea what these veterans are going through,” Jackson said.
Other soldiers have been arrested for possessing drugs, and Jackson said they need treatment, not prison.
“Substance abuse is one of the most common offenses you see,” she said.
Some soldiers also cope with anger management issues, she added.
“A lot of times they’re arrested for domestic violence or battery,” Jackson said. “They have a flashback and they can’t control that anger, and they lash out.”
In addition to working with the justice system to see if they can reduce their prison sentence, the program also aims to get these veterans into counseling.
“We try to make sure we have commissions to provide the care they need,” she said. “We’ve been very successful in doing that.”
To learn more about the Incarcerated Veterans program, call Sherri Claudio, the Veterans Justice Outreach Coordinator for the VA, at 407-629-1599.
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