Incarceration: Too Often a Revolving Door For Veterans

Why have so many veterans been incarcerated?

The simple answer is: many veterans land in jail or prison because of the consequences of their social problems, such as living in poverty, going without work for long periods of time, abusing drugs and alcohol, living in the streets, and struggling with mental health issues.

For many veterans, incarceration is a painful revolving door -- one that’s constantly swinging due to the fact that these veterans aren’t dealing with the root causes of their problems and so end up getting into trouble over and over again.

It’s hard to pinpoint how many veterans have been behind bars in recent years.

According to Vietnam Veterans of America, veterans accounted for about 10 percent of state prisoners in 2004. This was down from a high of 20 percent in 1986. Vietnam-era veterans made up the single largest group of incarcerated veterans. They generally had shorter criminal records than non-veterans, and about 80 percent of these veterans reported that substance abuse was a key issue leading to their incarceration.

Many of the people Veterans Support Organization (VSO) ends up helping have criminal records. They have trouble finding work and qualifying for social services and, as a result, end up further and further marginalized in our society. By the time we get involved, many are homeless or on the verge of being homeless.

We can all help resolve this major problem. One way to help veterans who have been incarcerated is to put your faith in them and hire them. Give them jobs so they can earn a living and break out of their destructive cycles. Also, steer them toward drug counseling. As we know, drug abuse is one of the main reasons many veterans get into trouble. If they stay drug-free, many of their bad behaviors will go away.

At VSO, we’ll keep doing our work in serving all veterans, even those with criminal records. We have faith in them.

Richard VanHouten is founder and CEO of Veterans Support Organization. 

Vietnam Veterans