It can be difficult for veterans who end up in prison to receive the care and benefits that their counterparts on the outside get.
That’s less of an issue now for veteran prisoners in Michigan, who can take advantage of the state’s Incarcerated Veterans Program to ensure they get the information and benefits they need.
“We’re just trying to show these men that no matter what they did, their service to their country has been appreciated,” said Tom Winn, warden of the Saginaw Correctional Facility in Saginaw County, Mich.
Through the Incarcerated Veterans Program, veterans can connect with local VA centers in Ann Arbor and Saginaw to access their medical records, get the exam from a VA medical professional required for disability claims and get help applying for the disability benefits to which they are entitled.
That’s huge for these veterans, as the only way for them to get their disability benefits is through the VA.
The Incarcerated Veterans Program launched in 2014 and is a collaboration between the Michigan Veterans Affairs Agency, Michigan Department of Corrections, those two VA medical centers and the Veterans Benefits Administration office in Detroit.
The MVAA recently won the federal VA’s 2019 Abraham Lincoln Pillars of Excellence Award for this program.
Rob Price is the MVAA’s director of targeted outreach. The former Army master sergeant and Gulf War veteran also used to work for the federal VA, processing disability claims and applications, including some from incarcerated veterans.
He realized that it was almost impossible for him to process the claims of veterans in prison because he couldn’t assess the severity of their disabilities while they were locked up, since the test that can only be performed by VA examiners.
That’s where the Incarcerated Veterans Program comes in handy, he said. Not only can the VA now determine veterans’ levels of disability, but Department of Corrections employees will also usually drive them to VA centers for their exams.
“That is a fine, fine example of cooperation between state departments,” Price said.
The program also allows vets the opportunity to move into a newly opened veteran-specific unit at the Saginaw Correctional Facility. Veterans who were honorably discharged and follow a strict code of conduct are eligible for this unit, according to Winn.
There are currently about 2,300 incarcerated veterans in Michigan, according to MVAA data. Winn said his prison’s veterans-specific unit currently houses 240 vets from all branches of the military, including the Coast Guard.
Winn is a veteran himself, having served 28 years in the Army, including a stint in Afghanistan. One of the best things about this unit for the veterans, he said, is the “camaraderie of being around people who think like you.”
“They can always remember that they’re a service member, and they positively impacted their community and lives at one point before whatever the circumstance was that landed them in prison,” he said.
The Incarcerated Veterans Program is also helping the handful of female veteran prisoners in Michigan by allowing them to go to the Ann Arbor VA, Winn said. There aren’t enough of them to warrant their own unit, “but those female veterans have not been forgotten or slighted,” he said.
Richard Thomas was a beneficiary of this program. He served in the Marines from 1970 to 1976 in mostly administrative roles and ended his military career as a sergeant. He entered prison in 1991 after being convicted of first-degree criminal sexual assault.
He was a prisoner at Lakeland Correctional Facility in Coldwater, Mich., in 2013 when he first heard about the Incarcerated Veterans Program. He signed up, and his 20 percent disability rating made him an ideal candidate. Thomas was transferred to Saginaw in 2014, and at that point, he said, it only took him two weeks to get his medical records, after trying and failing to obtain them for 30 years.
“It is a great benefit,” he said. “Just go with them and listen to them. They will fight hard for your case.”
Thomas was paroled in August 2016 and is now two semesters away from earning his divinity license from the Birmingham Bible Institute in Birmingham, Mich. He said that the Incarcerated Veterans Program helped prepare him for life after prison.
“I didn’t know what to do or how to do it myself,” he said. “So when I came out, I came out with my feet on the ground like I was going to be somebody.”
He made it clear that starting over after years of incarceration is a challenge, but he also recommended that his fellow disabled veterans trust the MVAA and take advantage of this program.
“I won’t say it’s real easy when you get out, but if you’re transparent and honest, the MVAA is there for you,” he said. “You can’t get help if you don’t ask.”