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Veterans released from prison amid pandemic get a helping hand

When veterans are released from prison, as part of their reentry back to society, they must notify the Department of Veterans Affairs to reinstate their benefit payments, which usually are reduced significantly while they are incarcerated.

But veterans also can face huge debts when they are released if the VA didn't receive notification of the incarceration or there had been a delay in reducing the benefit payments during the imprisonment.

“That’s really stressful and problematic for someone just out of prison to hear, ‘You owe us $14,000,’” said Cindy Johnson, deputy director of the Connecticut Veterans Legal Center.

"We wanted to remove those legal barriers," Johnson said. "They're dealing with so much change at that moment, and then they're being handed documents that are so stressful and they don't know how to deal with them. That's not helpful to their continued recovery, their continued path to not remaining incarcerated. We wanted to get in front of that."

The coronavirus pandemic has complicated matters, given that many VA offices are closed and employees are working from home. On top of that, COVID-19 has spread in prisons in Connecticut and across the country, leading several groups to call for the early release of veterans and others incarcerated. 

So, CVLC and two other Connecticut-based groups have stepped in to help.

CVLC, the Connecticut chapter of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, and the University of Connecticut Law chapter of the People’s Parity Project, a nationwide network of law students and new attorneys dedicated to eliminating discrimination in the legal system, have teamed up to help released or soon-to-be-released veterans in Connecticut navigate the process of reinstating their benefits and resolving any debts with the VA and other legal issues.

The idea is two-fold: provide reentry support to vets and provide an additional incentive for them to be released in light of the coronavirus pandemic, said Steve Kennedy, an Army veteran who leads IAVA-CT and is the president of the UConn Law chapter of the People’s Parity Project.

In early April, with news that five prisoners had tested positive for COVID-19 in the Willard-Cybulski Correctional Institution, the only prison in Connecticut with a Veterans’ Services Unit, several veterans groups and advocacy organizations, including CVLC and IAVA-CT, called on Gov. Ned Lamont and state Department of Correction Commissioner Rollin Cook to release veterans who meet the following criteria:

  • are over the age of 55
  • have underlying health conditions recognized by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as COVID-19 risk factors
  • are disabled
  • have less than one year left in their sentence
  • have a custody level of 1 or 2, considered to be low-risk offenders.

More than 50 lawmakers in the Connecticut General Assembly have joined their call.

There are about 450 veterans currently in DOC custody, including 60 in the veterans unit at Cybulski.

“To me that’s an absolutely no-brainer,” Kennedy said of releasing those in the veterans unit, given that they had to be screened to be placed in the unit, including having low-level offenses, short sentences and good behavior.

Kennedy said one of the considerations that goes into whether an incarcerated person is released early from prison is whether he or she has "proper community support" in place. The partnership, which he said he hopes can become a national model, is aiming to provide that support.

j.bergman@theday.com

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