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Veterans in prison

This is the outside of a prison with grey walls behind a barbed-wire fence.
Screen capture
VPM News Focal Point
The prison population includes a disproportionate percentage of veterans.

While veterans make up about 6% of the general population, they make up 8% of the prison population. We spoke with a number of those behind bars, and they cite post-traumatic stress disorder as well as trouble transitioning out of the military as factors that led them to prison. 


ANGIE MILES: In November 2000, Samuel Harris went to state prison, sentenced to 60 years. Some of that time he had already served while awaiting trial.

SAMUEL HARRIS: And I was originally sentenced on the robbery, the abduction, the carjacking, the gun charges.

ANGIE MILES: It was for a crime committed the year before in November 1999, in Suffolk.

SAMUEL HARRIS: On the day of November the 30th, I was walking around and I got to a house. I just, actually, I rang the doorbell and nobody was there. And that's when I went around the back and went through the back door and broke into the house. And that's when I started taking some firearms out of the house. In the midst of this, the couple comes home.

ANGIE MILES: Harris says he directed the man to get on the floor and the woman to hand over her car keys. Those instructions would later mean abduction and carjacking charges. Although, he says he told the couple he didn't intend to hurt anyone.

SAMUEL HARRIS: I got in their car and I left and a high speed chase ensued after that, which I eventually pulled over, surrendered to the police. Later was arrested and taken back to the jail. But the whole time I knew, I even told my lawyers, I'm not going to try to fight this, because I was, I mean, I was guilty of what I did. I was guilty, you know.

TRACY EURE (SISTER OF SAMUEL HARRIS): You remember, he's 15 here?


ANGIE MILES: Samuel Harris's family wants the world to meet a very different man than the one who went on a breaking and entering spree in 1999. A man they adore to this day.

ANN DAVIS: Samuel Harris is my cousin. Him and I, we're two months apart from kindergarten to the fifth grade. We were in the same class. Him and I have been inseparable all our lives.

PAMELA COPELAND (SISTER OF SAMUEL HARRIS): Samuel Harris is my baby brother. He's always been mischievous, but always very curious.

VIRGINIA LEIGH MIZELL WHITE (AUNT OF SAMUEL HARRIS): And but, he was just as sweet as he could be.

PAMELA COPELAND: When he joined the Army, oh, my God, he loved it. And I can remember him coming to my house and, you know, he was just excited.

ANN DAVIS: Of course, adulthood changes things somewhat, you know, as we get older, but our hearts never separated.

SAMUEL HARRIS: I was raised by my mom and dad, you know, he was a pastor. Again, we were the only two parent household on my block. We were the house all the kids hung out in. I graduated high school. I was, you know, I guess I was a good kid. They always say they saw the potential of me in what I could do.

ANGIE MILES: Harris says that given his love for sports, he considered a career as an agent, but ultimately, he followed the lead of his stepfather.

SAMUEL HARRIS: He was a Vietnam vet, and I remember he used to have his picture on the wall. He's a paratrooper out of 82nd.

ANGIE MILES: And a cousin had served, as well.

PAMELA COPELAND: Alfonso, Sam looked up to him. He respected him. And listening to stories of their experiences, drew him to serve in the military. And he's always admired our stepdad. His name for him was Big Dave, my Dave. So, he decides to follow in the footsteps of his stepdad and his cousin.

ANGIE MILES: It was 1987 when Harris began his military career with plans to serve for two decades and then retire comfortably. But just a few years later, he was back in Suffolk and behaving like a different person.

PAMELA COPELAND: There was an incident where I had just bought a brand, new car and I let him drive it, and he totaled it. He wrapped it around a telephone pole. We had to rush to Norfolk General and it was terrible. He would always say, "I hate alcohol." And to find out that, you know, alcohol had played a part in it, that was, you know, it was scary. We began to see the downward spiral in his life, you know, and it went from the alcohol to drugs and doing anything and everything. He, you know, to support his habit. So yeah, he was not the same.

ANGIE MILES: Sister Tracy remembers him knocking on her door in the middle of the night, in the dead of winter.

TRACY EURE: And I had told him, I said, 'You can't stay here.' I said, 'Because I don't want to wake up and all my stuff is gone.' You know, so that was the hardest thing to do, to turn him down. And when he left, I got on the phone and I called my dad and I was crying. I was like, 'Dad, I was like, please find him. Please get him somewhere to stay. It is so cold.' I said, 'But I can't let him stay here.'

ANN DAVIS: About maybe a month or so before the incident happened that led him to prison, he came over to my house. I hardly recognized him, you know, the person that was standing at the door. I remember asking him, 'Have you eaten? And do you need to go somewhere or anything?' And he said, "No," he said, "I'm fine." And I knew he wanted to, you know, I didn't know what to say to him and, you know, to reach him. And he didn't know what to say to me. But he was screaming for help. He was, he wanted help.

SAMUEL HARRIS: One of the questions that I get a lot now is it bothers me, but I understand when people tell me now, "You don't look like a crack addict." And my question is, "How does a crack addict look?" And what made me become the crack addict? What was the catalyst for me going there?

ANGIE MILES: What led Harris to drugs in prison, what leads many veterans along this same path is the focal point of the Operation Phoenix Veterans Group at Lawrenceville Correctional Center.

CASEY HALL: My name is Casey Hall. I served from ‘94 to ‘98. Now that PTSD is becoming something major, the resources are slow to reach us from this side of the fence. We can’t get up and go to the VA. So, with Operation Phoenix we can start to address some of those issues that more than likely led us to where we are today.

TIM MILLER. Tim Miller, I was in the US Navy from 1982 to 1989. I’m old enough to remember Vietnam. And those people, who had no idea what PTSD was then, were becoming alcoholics and drug users. We’re doing the same things now. We’re reverting back to self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. Yeah, we’ve got a diagnosis, but we don’t have the support to deal with it.

CASEY HALL: From the time we hit basic to the time that we leave, we are trained how to engage. Nobody ever told me how to turn it off. That everywhere I go was not a war zone. That everybody was not my enemy.

SAMUEL HARRIS: You see the PTSD and most likely you’re gonna see a substance use disorder coming in behind it. Then you’re gonna see a crime. It’s like a pattern. The great part is learning how to talk about it. Talk about, you know, why we came here. What are we struggling with? But I think for years we were suffering in silence for so long, what do we do with it?

ANGIE MILES: Harris says for him the trouble started in 1988 when he nearly drowned at the bottom of a swimming pool during an army training exercise.

PAMELA COPELAND: That was very scary. He was unresponsive and they had told me to prepare my parents to fly to Alaska to be with him if he didn't pull through within 24 hours. But, thank God, you know, he pulled through and after a few weeks in the hospital, they flew him home.

SAMUEL HARRIS: I got through that okay, I'm going to be honest, I refused to get help because back then, you know, it's like a stigma to go and see a psychologist or something. So, I ended up getting out of the Army a year later.

ANGIE MILES: For his first few years back in Suffolk, Harris became one of the most successful car salesmen in the area. But increasingly, he turned to drugs for his unaddressed, mental health issues. He says it was 2014 when VA representatives came to him in prison. And 2015, when he was finally diagnosed with PTSD, stemming from that training accident in 1988.

SAMUEL HARRIS: I'm not trying to absolve or make excuses for committing the crimes, but part of the ingredients of committing these crimes is these undiagnosed mental health problems or issues that were never diagnosed or never diagnosed properly. You had to say played a part into leading us here. We are hoping this is a model for other prisoners. I commend the counselors and the wardens for what they are doing,

ANGIE MILES: Harris says, better support is needed as service members are making the initial transition to civilian life. He adds that, behind the prison walls, there are veterans who are suffering, coping with how their military service changed them and hoping that the country that they chose to serve won't forget them, will consider the full extent of what they have sacrificed.


Angie Miles, Host/Producer, anchors and hosts VPM News Focal Point and special broadcasts.