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Vets In Prison
You need a job, or you've been busted and the judge offers you a deal. So, you join the Army. Three years later, you're out--you still need a job only now you have a wife and a kid, or a drug habit to support. You've got no training, no prospects. There's a liquor store on the corner, and the family needs food. You knock it over--it works, so you try again. But there's s slip-out and, since a fast-talking lawyer is too expensive and it costs too much to buy the judge, you're sentenced to prison.
There are thousands of variations on this story. And, according to the 1970 census, there were almost 100,000 vets in state and federal prisons, and countless thousands more in shabby county and city lock-ups which no government agency even bothers to keep track of. We know what makes up the majority of prisoners: people who are poor, minority people, people who have been targets of police repression. White-collar crime (for instance, the manufacturer whose faulty equipment kills people, or the coal mine owner whose shoddy profit-making mine collapses on a group of miners) is seldom punished.
Veterans, and particular Vietnam-era vets, face special problems which can lead to prison. After having seen what the US government was doing in Southeast Asia, thousands of vets are much less likely to pay attention to the so-called "laws and orders" of the same government at home. And since the government and the people who control it, base much of their power on keeping private property "scared," they will send off to prison anyone who threatens this in whatever way.
From a Kentucky prison comes a history which could be repeated in almost any prison in the country: "I went into the Marine Corps at the age of 17 and I was gung-ho and then we moved out to a hell-hole called Thailand and when my 16 months was over in the 3rd Marine Div., I came back to the states on drugs...." This was followed by a couple of fights, a trip to Navy psychiatrist, a general discharge under honorable conditions, and a return home. "So I called home, well I was sick and hurting and I had a cold turkey. My father seen me an when he seen my discharge he got me in his car and drove me to the VA hospital in Memphis, Tenn. I was sick, every 5 miles we stopped, so I went in the hospital alone and I alone and in a big pretty clean office this well educated officer told me that they couldn't help me for drug addiction. I couldn't believe it, I just got up and walked out and my father went in and came out and said he now didn't know what to do. I thought to myself I got on drugs overseas and I had habits over there yet if I would have got killed, I would have died a Marine fighting for his country... So I didn't die and I was a lucky one...and sometimes I wonder if I would have been better off to have had my first shot over there from a gun instead of an outfit full of opium. So when we came back from the VA hospital I went running dope and then still it came to few, so I ran into a drug store and finally was sent to prison..."
Prisons preach rehabilitation; they don't do it. In-prison programs which actually help prepare prisoners to find a job on the outside are scarce, and companies which will hire an ex-prisoner are equally hard to find. Prison slave labor is paid anywhere from nothing to a magnificent 75 cents a day, so very few people come out of prison with a nest egg to live on. Even under the best circumstances, prisons are a large chunk of a person's life; time totally wasted. But also time where education, job training, or other useful skills could be picked up. And the Veterans Administration (VA) is supposed to be helping vets with exactly these things.
Not the VA. A study done by the General Accounting office on the way the VA works in prisons, showed that it doesn't work at all--hardly a surprise to anyone who has tried to get any of the benefits administrated by the VA. According to the VA, out of 280 prisoners, 142 were being "serviced" by the VA. This service ranges from being "on call" (that means the individual vet must go through the prison red tape to get to the VA red tape which may result in a visit if the VA gets around to it and the prison officials allow it) to regular, scheduled visits and group counseling sessions 9which happen in only a few prisoners).
As part of the same study, a number of vets in prison were interviewed. 81% had been told nothing about VA benefits to which they were entitled. 53% thought they had lost their rights to benefits by being imprisoned. As a result of the stink caused when the results of the study were released, the VA promised to clean up their act, and set forth a minimum program for VA offices to follow. The results are demonstrated in a letter from a Pennsylvania prisoner: "I have written to the VA office in Pittsburg several times and haven't received anything from them. I guess they don't want to answer....I realize now that I do need help! What I'd like to know is, is it too late? A prisoner cannot give the help because they don't care or have the time or want to help. I'm not lookin' for a cop out of prison, I know I can handle it but what about once I get out? I know for a fact I'll go right back to what I was doin' before I got busted. The people at Pittsburg just don't give a damn about me or other brothers of the Vietnam war that seek help through the VA..."
So much for the new VA program in prisons, If there's one thing VVAW/WSO has learned through our war on the VA, it's that to get the rights and benefits promised to vets, we've got to fight for them. Vets in prison can't go in and jam the VA director; but they can demand their right. In several prisons, vets have gotten together to work for decent benefits--for ALL vets, providing information to other vets about VA programs, and demanding that the VA respond to their needs. Work is going on around upgrading discharges, since a vet with a less-than-honorable discharge faces even greater problems.
Prisons in the US are based on repression and often open terror tactics; vets in prison face all the same conditions that other prisoners face and are not a separate group--anymore than vets on the outside are separate from other, working people. But imprisoned vets are often there because of the particular ways in which they can unite--both around their problems as vets and their situation as prisoners. They need the support of people involved in the same fight on the other side of the prison walls. DECENT BENEFITS FOR ALL VETS!