Mary Donovan, a veterans claims analyst with CalVet, talked benefits with about 30 veterans in the Sierra foothills community of Ione one recent morning.
This wasn’t just any veterans’ group, though. All are inmates at Mule Creek State Prison, and among the more than 5,000 military veterans incarcerated in California’s 34 adult state prisons. Despite their criminal convictions, they or their families can receive some of the benefits they earned while serving. Other benefits are placed on “hold” until they are released.
On the inside or out, CalVet’s Justice Involved Veterans Initiative stands ready to assist them. Donovan and other claims analysts throughout the state help incarcerated veterans access benefits while imprisoned, and help restore their full complement of benefits upon release.
It is a partnership involving CalVet, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR), County Veterans Service Officers, and nonprofits.
“When we at CalVet say we advocate for all California’s 1.6 million veterans, we do mean all,” said CalVet Secretary Vito Imbasciani MD. “Many of these men and women are incarcerated because of unfortunate decisions they made, some due to experiences from their time in the military. This program gives many of them greater opportunities to succeed and thrive upon their release.”
Though still in its relative infancy in just its fifth year, this highly successful program earned a prestigious Abraham Lincoln Pillars of Excellence Award from the VA in February.
Regardless of convictions and confinement, military veterans with service-connected disabilities remain eligible for the benefits they earned by virtue of their service to this country. Most of those benefits, however, are reduced to 10 percent upon the veteran’s 61st day of incarceration. Other veterans who might qualify for service-related benefits need assistance in attaining them while in prison.
The seeds for this program were planted around 2010, when some California counties began developing treatment courts for veterans struggling with mental illnesses. Those courts gave veterans the opportunities to be identified upon arrest, through the trial process, and while incarcerated. The VA’s Veterans Justice Outreach program worked with CDCR to determine how many veterans were incarcerated in California. Those numbers compelled state and federal officials to ensure neither these veterans nor their families are forgotten while the veterans are imprisoned. Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation in 2017 that requires at least one employee per five state prisons be assigned to work with incarcerated veterans.
“It’s really important that we provide those services,” said Keith Boylan, CalVet’s Deputy Secretary of Veterans Services. “It’s important that the families, spouses, and children of the incarcerated don’t suffer due to the decisions of the veteran that is currently incarcerated.”
CalVet assembled a team of nine veterans claims analysts – seven who work out of CalVet’s Oakland, Los Angeles, and San Diego district offices, and two out of CalVet Headquarters in Sacramento. CalVet also developed its own interagency agreement with CDCR to obtain the list of incarcerated veterans. Since then, the number of claims filed has risen from 164 in 2012-2013 to 700 in each of the past three years, and are expected to rise as more incarcerated veterans seek help.
“As that grew,” Boylan said, “we started to get that list, started to make connections with those folks, started to establish relationships with the Department of Corrections. (That led to) more access to those facilities, to go in and provide more services.”
The CDCR also informs CalVet when an incarcerated veteran receives a parole date, which is 180 days before release, enabling analysts to help restore benefits as soon as possible upon release.
They help veterans get their service-connected disability ratings for injuries they incurred or were made worse as a result of military service, working with CDCR officials to arrange healthcare appointments either on or away from the prison facilities.
They help secure allotments, which provide a share of the income to spouses and families the disabled veteran would receive if not incarcerated.
And they often stay in touch with their veteran clients well after release.
“Sometimes they don’t have the means to get to (the) closest county veterans organization,” Claims Analyst Elizabeth Hargrove-Washington said. “No transportation. They’re still trying to get settled on the outside, so it’s almost easier to continue their claim with us.”
While the COVID-19 pandemic kept analysts from visiting the prisons for more than two years, and prevented many veterans from getting the exams they needed to obtain their service-related disability ratings, the service never stopped. They relied on the U.S. Postal Service to communicate, which is typical because prison inmates don’t have access to email.
“I think the goal of the program is to offer them as much the same kind and quantity of service they would be able to get on the outside if they were free,” Donovan said.
And when that happens, all involved reap the benefits, Boylan said.
“The biggest point is … to really be there for them and help them make a successful transition out of incarceration and become a productive member of the community again,” he said. “That’s clearly the most gratifying of all.”
For a closer look into this award-winning program and to observe a meeting with incarcerated veterans watch our video about the project at bit.ly/3q6AStZ.
Coming next week on CVC a story on the incarcerated veterans who offer their appreciation to the claims analysts who help them.