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Our military veterans are the pride of our country but many have challenges after returning from service where they faced hostile environments under stressful circumstances. While most transition back to civilian life, mental illness, trauma and drug addiction are too often a part of the life of post-war veterans.

There were over 10,000 veteran offenders in the custody of the Federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP) at the end of 2019, accounting for almost six percent of all BOP inmates according to a US Sentencing Commission study who conducted a study. That study was meant to review whether veterans were receiving a benefit for their service when they were sentenced for federal crimes. The conclusion was that average sentence for veteran offenders was 64 months compared to 62 months for all citizen offenders.

According to the US Sentencing Commission, the most common crime committed by both veteran offenders and citizen offenders was drug trafficking (25.0% and 37.6%, respectively). Veteran offenders, however, committed child pornography offenses more than four times as often as citizen offenders overall, 11.6 percent compared to 2.7 percent, and sex abuse offenses more than twice as often, 6.7 percent compared to 2.4 percent.

Two-thirds (66.9%) of the offenders whose military service was cited by the court indicated that they had some history of mental health problems, compared to 51.1 percent for veteran offenders generally. Also, more than half of the offenders whose military service was cited by the court had served in a combat zone, compared to 22.6 percent for all veteran offenders. Veteran offenders also tended to be older and more educated than citizen offenders overall. The average age of veteran offenders was 47, compared to 37 for citizen offenders. Among veteran offenders, just 3.0 percent had less than a high school education. To address this special group of prisoners the BOP, which employs a number of military veterans, has created a program to address veteran needs.

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The BOP supports incarcerated veterans through its collaboration with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). The BOP acknowledged that veterans, as a result of their service, suffer from higher instances of trauma, anxiety, depression, and physical disabilities, which can be pathways into the criminal justice system. The BOP and the VA have entered into an agreement allowing VA staff to visit all 122 institutions to outline services the VA can provide veterans and their family. Services include scheduling compensation examinations for delivery within facilities, explaining the requirements for receiving VA services, and sharing how benefits and services are coordinated in the VA.

Recognizing the unique needs and challenges faced by incarcerated Veterans, the Bureau has implemented a three-tiered service delivery model that culminated with the activation of a residential program for Veterans housed at FCI Englewood, Colorado. The Veterans Education Transitional Services (VETS) Unit is based on a community model in which the environment integrates uniformed service core values with veteran-centric programs, services, and benefits education. Access to Department of Veterans Affairs justice program representatives assist program participants with connecting to resources, services and benefits they are entitled to and that also support the BOP’s reentry efforts.

Dr. Alix McLearen serves as the BOP’s Acting Assistant Director over the Reentry Services Division and she recently spoke at FCI Englewood about the collaboration between the BOP and VA. Dr. McLearan said, “Several years ago, I was shocked to learn there were 10,000 veterans in the BOP. I immediately began looking into research on the needs of incarcerated veterans. I reached out to our colleagues at the Veterans Administration, the National Institute of Corrections … I began exploring how the agency could better serve this population.”

Incarcerated veterans are recognized as a special population by the BOP to ensure their service-related needs are met during incarceration. A three-tiered service model for incarcerated veterans was then implemented agency wide. This model prioritizes the availability of veteran specific resources; the provision of programming focused on veteran wellness, reentry, mental health and reentry needs; and established the VETS Unit.

Dr. McLearen said, “Within every veteran is the hidden culture of the military, the enduring and powerful characteristics of military beliefs, habits, values, assumptions, understandings, and judgments that affect your world view even today. These intangible values and guiding ideals acquired while in uniform, you have kept. Even though you may have drifted from them, they are still within you. These are things you know, even if you cannot easily articulate them. You know them.”

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