Teri Herold-Prayer, a research manager for the state Department of Corrections, asks the large group how many veterans are present. About two-thirds raise their hands. When she asks how many served in the military, all of their hands shoot up.
"You're ALL veterans," she told them, regardless of whether they served in a war or not. She stressed that when both they, and the state, know their veteran status, the state can better help them get the benefits they've earned once they're released, easing their re-entry into the community and hopefully cutting back on recidivism.
"I don't want you back here," she said. "I don't think you want to come back here, either."
Herold-Prayer's visit is part of a statewide effort to identify all veterans in the state's 12 prisons. The project was sparked two years ago after a Veterans Health Administration directive allowed health care benefits to be provided to veterans in work release. That federal change prompted officials at the state Department of Corrections to investigate what more could be done for the state's veterans who are inmates.
"Incarcerated veterans are uniquely qualified for benefits that can help them succeed once they complete their prison sentence," said Chad Lewis, a spokesman for the department. "They've earned these benefits, and the public is safer when they have housing and mental-health treatment."
The trick, Lewis said, was identifying veterans in the system, something he said was "more difficult than you might expect."
Up until a few years ago, state officials were only able to verify 4 percent of the prison population as veterans, far below the national average of 10 percent. That was due, in part, to incarcerated veterans not mentioning their military service upon booking, Lewis said.
Lewis and Herold-Prayer said that that many veterans don't volunteer their status because they either don't realize they are a veteran, are embarrassed by their situation or are worried that their families could lose their veteran benefits while they are in prison.
After running names against a master list at the U.S. Department of Defense at the end of last year, and then working with the state Department of Veterans Affairs throughout this year, Herold-Prayer said that they've found veterans make up at least 8 percent of the state's approximately 16,000 prison population, and that the percentage could increase even more as the DOC continues its work. Also, earlier this year, the DOC changed its policy so that instead of relying on an inmate to volunteer their veteran status, they are being actively asked when they arrive at prison.
Currently, the most recent national numbers on veterans in state and federal prison are from 2004. A 2007 Bureau of Justice Statistics report showed that in 2004, an estimated 140,000 veterans were in prison nationwide. Tracy Snell, a statistician for the Bureau of Justice Statistics, said they have been revamping the survey, and the plan is to do another one in 2013.
"Really, no one knows for certain how many veterans are in the justice system right now," said Christopher Deutsch, a spokesman for Alexandria, Va.-based Justice for Vets, an organization that advocates for veteran treatment courts. But, "that's starting to change."
Deutsch said with the increase of veteran treatment courts around the country in recent years -- there are nearly 100 in 27 states, including Washington state -- there's more of a push to identify veterans in the criminal justice system.
"The earlier they can be identified, the better, because then you can start look at diverting them to a different track, whether it's a veterans' court or a mental health assessment," he said. "I think states are getting much more sophisticated at doing this. But there's a long way to go."
Herold-Prayer has been visiting each of the state's prisons since May, doing visits like the one at Stafford Creek in June to make sure that incarcerated veterans know that they are entitled to military benefits upon their release, but also to ensure they're not currently receiving an overpayment of military benefits while in prison, which would mean they would leave prison already facing debt.
Veterans face restrictions on receiving benefits while they are incarcerated, but can apply to have that money directed to their family. But if they continue to collect the full amount, they could leave prison tens of thousands of dollars in debt because they'll be required to repay what they collected while incarcerated.
"We do not want to see that happen with any of our offenders," Herold-Prayer told the group assembled at Stafford Creek.
Ernest Grant, a 40-year-old Navy veteran, wasn't aware he had to notify Veterans Affairs of his incarceration, and was filling out paperwork to remedy that after Herold-Prayer's meeting.
"It was a surprise to hear all of that," he said.
Grant, who is serving a 30-year sentence for homicide by abuse, said the most helpful thing he learned from the meeting was his access to things like medical and housing when he is released as early as 2025.
"It's a real big relief to know I have my benefits to fall back on and I can get help," he said.
Officials said another benefit of having a truer sense of the veteran population is getting them specialized counseling while in prison.
Mary Forbes, an assistant director at the Washington State Department of Veterans Affairs, said that mental health counselors for the prisons have already started receiving training specific to war trauma and other issues specific to veterans. They're also part of helping set up veteran support groups within the prisons.
"This whole initiative has multiple parts to it," she said. "What can we do while they're in, what can we do after they're out."
Washington state Department of Corrections: www.doc.wa.gov
Justice for Vets: www.justiceforvets.org
Washington state Department of Veterans Affairs: www.dva.wa.gov
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