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Jack Sisson's TBI Blog

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From the Burnt Orange Report, Texas' largest group political blog:

The Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) Justice for Veterans Campaign is a program to help those military veterans who: 

-- are struggling with physical and mental health-conditions related to their service 

-- all too often find themselves struggling with the criminal justice system as well.

There is a significant correlation between incarceration and the mental health conditions faced by veterans: 40% of veterans with PTSD symptoms commit a crime after discharge from wartime service. As a result, veterans are severely over-represented in the criminal justice system: nationwide, 10% of prison and jail inmates once served in the military, the majority in wartime. 

In 2011, the Texas Civil Rights Project (TCRP) received a grant from the Texas Access to Justice Foundation to help address the needs veterans in the criminal justice system. TCRP is working with existing stakeholders and a network of pro bono attorneys to reach out to those veterans before, during, and after their incarceration.

Standing on a Precarious Edge

Transitioning from military life to the civilian world can be a daunting and stressful change under the best of circumstances. And we are not in the best of circumstances. Significant numbers of men and women are leaving military service today carrying burdens that are too great for them to bear.

On October 7, 2001, the United States launched Operating Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. Less than eighteen months later, on March 20, 2003, the United States launched Operation Iraqi Freedom. A 2008 RAND study estimated 1.64 million troops, up to that point, had been deployed to support operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Today’s estimate exceeds 2 million.

Estimates vary regarding the number of returning vets who are suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and Traumatic Brain Injury (TBI), but none of them are good. The same RAND study estimated about 31% of troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan suffered from either a mental health condition (e.g. PTSD or major depression), TBI, or both.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is an anxiety disorder that can occur after exposure to traumatic events such as combat, natural disasters, assaults or motor vehicle accidents. Symptoms can include nightmares, flashbacks, intrusive memories, feeling numb and detached from people, insomnia, irritability and hypervigilance.

Traumatic Brain Injury is caused by a bump, blow or jolt to the head or a penetrating head injury that disrupts the normal function of the brain. Symptoms of mild TBI can include headaches, poor concentration, memory loss, sleep disturbances, and irritability-emotional disturbances.

According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), from 2002 to 2009, 1 million troops left active duty in Iraq or Afghanistan and became eligible for VA care. Of those troops, 46% came in for VA services. Of those Veterans who used VA care, 48% were diagnosed with a mental health problem.

Slipping into a Vicious Circle

Today, one in ten of the people incarcerated in the United States are veterans. The majority of these veterans served in wartime.

There is a relatively high correlation between incarceration and the mental health conditions faced by veterans. For example, people diagnosed with PTSD are 4.5 times more likely to be imprisoned for a violent act, and 40 percent of veterans with symptoms of PTSD have committed a crime after discharge from the service.

Once a person goes to prison, the mental health services available him or her are, as a practical matter, very limited or non-existent.

“The Texas Civil Rights Project receives many letters from obviously mentally ill prisoners. Notable examples include the prisoner who sent copies of ‘peace declarations’ between himself and the United States for the the Civil War, World War II, and Vietnam, [and] the prisoner who threatened to sue the Project through the Intergalactic Space Court . . .
These are not prisoners in mental health treatment facilities. These are prisoners in top-security TDCJ units, receiving bare-minimum mental health care that contributes little toward their rehabilitation.”

Even those veterans who do not leave prison with an untreated mental illness will face significant obstacles to reentering society. Having a criminal record can make it very difficult to find either housing or employment, and lacking either makes it difficult to find the other, creating a vicious circle.

“‘A convicted felon is pretty much barred from public housing,’ said [Danny] Sneed, a U.S. Army veteran. ‘Even if you make great money, you can’t live in a lot of apartment complexes because of your felony conviction.’”

Lack of housing and employment for those recently released from incarceration dramatically increases their chances of recidivism and return to incarceration.

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