Why Are 200,000 Veterans in Prison?

A relatively unknown but prominent statistic regarding veterans is how many end up battling offenses within the criminal justice system. In fact, a study by The Institute for Medicine (2010) identified prison as one of the critical issues facing veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Recent estimates identify that about 200,000 veterans are in our prisons.

 Robert Agnew’s General Strain Theory regarding veterans

veterans in prison New York Times article
Recent estimates identify that about 200,000 veterans are in our prisons. (Image courtesy of New York Times article

With all that we know about returning veterans and their post traumatic stress, traumatic brain injury, general stress and related neurological deficits, we could predict their predisposition for triggers toward violence. After all, they were trained to protect and survive.

However, evidence has yet to provide us with the research we need to determine the varied causes why veterans end up in prison. Could it be due to domestic violence? Crime from unemployment? Drug offenses or mental illness or violent crime? We are not certain. However, we do know too many veterans are coming home from the field of battle and ending up in prison.

What is the General Strain Theory?

Criminologist Robert Agnew, developed the General Strain Theory to explain how people who have been exposed to trauma and experienced negative emotions (such as anger and irritability) are more likely to commit crimes or display forms of antisocial behavior. Since anger and irritability are common in posttraumatic stress and TBI, Agnew’s strain theory suggests that these diagnoses can explain the relatively high percentage of convicted veterans.

I am grateful some prisons have specially-assigned dorms for veterans.

Since veteran’s issues may be related to their battle experience, it makes sense to have them in places where they can be rehabilitated with their peers. Peer support adds a degree of familiar structure to missions carried out in battle. Once we understand their issues, it could also provide better support and reintegration opportunities.

However, once again I raise the issue of transition.

Posttraumatic stress, tremendous personal loss, propensity towards violence, protection of comrades, mistrust of almost everyone and the general hypervigilance of war experiences can easily explain the violent and criminal tendencies of some of our veterans. It is tragic that veterans can come from service to incarceration in so short a time.

We should be designing a better process to help veterans find help, jobs and stability.

It may be a difficult process, but veterans have done so much for our country that it seems only fair that we give them the help they need to successfully re-enter their lives. To me, it is our moral obligation and stewardship in light of all they have done for us.

Do check out our plan on American Veteran’s Tribute Organization. It may be only one option but it is a beginning to help our veterans find someone to help them transition form their post-war phase and re-engage into a normal and successful life with the help of other trained veterans.

Gerry Vassar, President/CEO, Lakeside Educational Network

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