They served the country and now, they serve time
A disproportionate number of United States veterans are in prison. While vets make up about 6% of the general population, they comprise 8% of the prison population. In the immediate aftermath of Vietnam, that number was as high as 24%. Research tells us that one in three U.S. veterans has been jailed and that veterans of recent wars are twice as likelyas non-veterans to face incarceration.
As public and private groups conduct more study, government agencies are beginning to offer more programs to help vets transition more smoothly out of active duty. Virginia's Department of Corrections is taking steps to offer greater support for veterans in some of its facilities and is partnering with other agencies to provide services for those leaving prison. Virginia localities have begun utilizing veterans' courts so that some former service members can receive counseling or drug treatment rather than prison, recognizing that PTSD and addiction are challenges that take many veterans down dark paths following their time in the service.
At Lawrenceville Correctional Center in Brunswick County, Virginia, a support group known as Operation Phoenix brings together incarcerated veterans from every branch of military service. Some have been convicted of petty crimes and others for murder-- most with some form of substance abuse as a factor. Six members of Operation Phoenix spoke at length with VPM News Focal Point's Angie Miles, answering several questions. They discussed their military background, what led to their crimes, their responsibilities and character in light of their military service, their upbringing and public perception of veterans who go to prison. Each said he takes full responsibility for his crime, but each also said that better support upon leaving the military might have spared them and their victims from the consequences of their post-military choices. They would like to see greater public awareness of the challenges facing veterans and more support in helping veterans address their mental and emotional issues as they return to civilian life.
Casey Hall, Samuel Harris, Michael Jackson, Tim Collins, Mark Wallace and Robert White were interviewed in one sitting on November 6, 2023. The conversations were scheduled to be videotaped at Lawrenceville but were rescheduled as phone interviews when the facility went into institutional lockdown on the designated day. The facility made an exception for the group, allowing the interviews to take place in any form during a lockdown. The veterans' comments are presented here with limited interruptions, edited only for clarity and brevity, where necessary.
Three of those interviewed here-- Casey Hall, Samuel Harris and Robert White-- are among those who tell their incarceration stories in a book called Remorsefulness. The authors say all proceeds from the book are being donated to charity.
To see more of Samuel Harris' story, follow this link to our story from VPM News Focal Point: LINK HERE
And to see our interview with Virginia's Department of Veterans Services about how interventions for veterans are changing: LINK HERE
Virginia's Department of Corrections announced in December that Lawrenceville, currently the state's only privately-run prison, will come back under the VDOC umbrella next year, when the contract with the private firm Geo Group ends in August.