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Why Are so Many Veterans in Prison?

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Following what is quickly becoming a nation-wide trend in the U.S., the Indian Creek Correctional Center in Chesapeake, Virginia, recently opened a veterans-only dorm to house prisoners who are former soldiers. In dedicating the new wing, state correctional officials announced that they hoped that the veterans-only facility will help veterans complete their sentences and avoid prison in future. Along with Virginia, other U.S. states including Florida and Georgia have also opened up veterans-only prison facilities to address the rising problem of returning military veterans who get in trouble with the law.

In a 2010 study released by the Institute of Medicine, criminal justice involvement was identified as being one of the most significant problems faced by veterans returning from tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan. Some recent estimates place the number of returned veterans in U.S. prisons as being as high as 200,000, with more than half of those veterans incarcerated for violent offenses. Since veteran status is not always reported at the time of conviction, this number may actually be an underestimate.

While many returning veterans suffer from posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or traumatic brain injury (TBI), which research has linked to an increased risk of offending, research directly investigating the role of PTSD and TBI in convicted veterans is relatively scarce. According to the General Strain Theory developed by criminologist Robert Agnew, people who have been exposed to trauma and experience negative emotions such as anger and irritability are more likely to commit crimes or display other forms of antisocial behaviour. Since anger and irritability are common features in PTSD and TBI, strain theory suggests that these diagnoses can explain the relatively high percentage of convicted veterans.

Recently, a team of researchers at the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill School of Medicine and Veteran Affairs conducted an in-depth analysis of more than 1,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. Their research study, published in a recent issue of the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology, examined 1,388 veterans randomly selected from a roster of over a million veterans with a mean age of 36.2, coming from all fifty U.S. states. Through online and print surveys, participants were asked about criminal justice involvement and given a series of tests measuring combat exposure, post-traumatic symptoms and specific symptoms of traumatic brain injury. Items measuring key factors such as irritability were broken into high and low categories.

Overall, nine percent of the study participants reported some criminal justice involvement since returning to normal life. Most of these arrests were for nonviolent offenses with less than two weeks spent in custody, however. Results also showed that veterans suffering from PTSD who reported high irritability with frequent anger episodes were more likely to become involved with the criminal justice system. Other factors appeared to be better predictors of criminal involvement, though, including troubled family backgrounds, being young and male, substance abuse or having a prior criminal history. While these are factors found in civilian populations as well, the posttraumatic symptoms resulting from combat exposure can certainly add to the general strain leading to criminal involvement. Still, TBI and high combat exposure alone do not appear to be significant risk factors in themselves whether they lead to high irritability or not.

While self-reported information has its limits, this study does help show possible reasons for the high number of returning veterans currently in U.S. prisons. It also highlights the important role that anger can play in how well a veteran can become reintegrated in society after traumatic tours of duty -- which has implications for thinking about placing veterans in situations where they risk being arrested, as well as considering whether they participate in treatment to help deal with their trauma. (Angry veterans are more likely to drop out of treatment programs.) Anger also makes veterans more likely to run into problems while in prison, whether it be from prison guards or fellow inmates.

Though the rise in veterans-only prison facilities can help avoid problems in the short-run, the long-term consequences of increasing numbers of veterans entering the prison system is only beginning to be felt across the United States.

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