On Thursday, February 16, 2017, a small group of students from the West Virginia University College of Law Clinical Law Program traveled to the Federal Correctional Institution-Hazelton, a federal medium security men’s prison facility, to offer programming to incarcerated veterans. Included in the group were student attorneys Michelle Schaller and Bradley Wright from the West Virginia Innocence Project, student attorneys Kirsten Lilly and C.J. Reid from the Veterans Advocacy Clinic, undergraduate social work student Tatum Storey, as well as Professors Valena Beety (WVIP Director) and Jennifer Oliva (VAC Director).
Programming comes in all shapes and sizes, but its importance speaks volumes for the future of inmates. With the decline in prison programming, the West Virginia Innocence Project and the Veterans Advocacy Clinic recognized that programing to help incarcerated veterans with Veterans Administration (VA) benefits, such as disability compensation and discharge upgrades, was one thing the clinics could do to help fill this void by aiding specific inmates with their issues and by providing inmates with the resources and knowledge necessary to help themselves.
Perspective: West Virginia Innocence Project
In the Innocence Project, students review countless applications from convicted felons claiming innocence and pleading with the Project to provide some sort of assistance to them in their hour of need. From the perspective of law students who still have full faith in the Constitution and its procedures, seeing individuals who have been wrongly convicted is the most difficult aspect of being a student attorney. These injustices create a bubbling fury in the pit of any young lawyer’s stomach motivating them to push forward, spending late hours finishing the last minute edits of an appeal to the Supreme Court of Appeals of West Virginia or the tension filled argument about a Bluebooking question because it is the fight for an innocent person’s freedom. But when we, Innocence Project student attorneys, entered a prison visiting room full of veterans, most of whom will freely admit they are guilty of their crimes,, it left us with quite a different feeling—invigorated and astonished. Astonished in the sense that society has seemingly given up on these individuals, despite their sacrifice for our country, and despite the fact that most of them would be released from Bureau of Prisons (BOP) custody within a few years and reenter society.
As the men at Federal Correctional Institution-Hazelton walked into the visiting room and took their seats in the small, plastic chairs, forty grown men sat facing four law students and one undergraduate social worker with eager looks on their faces. Looking to the clock on our left, and realizing that in two hours at least one individual’s future would be changed, was impactful and saddening simultaneously. When speaking with the inmates during those two hours, the sad realization that they did not have anyone to answer their questions or anyone to tell them who can answer their questions became evident and that is almost an injustice in itself. We were swarmed with questions—forty inmates had the attention of five lawyers for two whole hours and none of them were going to waste that opportunity. Personally, I could not answer most of the questions, either due to lack of information, our inability as law students to give legal advice, or our lack of knowledge of that subject matter. Leaving the prison, we felt disheartened. At what point did the law determine that incarcerated inmates do not get assistance?
Perspective: Veterans Advocacy Clinic
This year in the Veterans Advocacy Clinic, we have seen countless applications come in from veterans in West Virginia requesting our assistance with VA benefits issues, discharge upgrades, wills, custody issues, other civil legal matters, and the like. Each time an application comes in, we review the material, call the potential client, and set up an appointment to meet with them and see if there’s anything we can do to help. Little did we know, that there was a population of veterans located forty-five minutes down the road in need of our help who did not even know we existed. Better yet, those who might have heard of us had no means of contacting us – no point person to address their questions, no address to mail an application, no means of accessing our application at all.
We were unsure of what to expect when we arrived at FCI Hazelton, knowing little more than maybe twenty or so incarcerated veterans who may or may not be receptive to our presence were expected to be there. The purpose and goal of this initial meeting was to feel out the crowd and to ask questions, inquiring what the veterans wanted to learn about so that we could better tailor our future programming to help them. Professor Oliva came prepared with statistics and handouts to serve as points of interest for conversation starters but they were wholly unnecessarily. She began by asking the veterans to introduce themselves, one by one, and almost each veteran had an issue or a question to present. Many were interested in learning about VA benefits and had misconceptions about what they were entitled to. Few knew that they still had rights and could begin the benefits application process while incarcerated. Some had questions about reentry, but ALL were respectful, receptive, and grateful that we were there. One of the incarcerated veterans said before we left, “Thank you for everything. This gives me hope that you all are here and it’s good to know that someone is listening and cares, no matter what you are able to do.”
For the VAC student attorneys, this is what sticks out the most in our minds. Veterans often feel, and in many respects are, a forgotten population; feeling that they served their country and now their country has forgotten them. Inmates too are often considered a forgotten population. But veteran inmates . . . In our eyes, their status as a veteran is something they have earned and it cannot be taken from them. Although their rights and benefits entitlement may be somewhat affected, their veteran status is not checked at the door once they enter the criminal justice system. If you are a veteran in West Virginia and you need help with non-criminal matters, that is enough for us. You may be in prison, but you are a veteran and we help veterans.
Perspective: Social Work
Visiting FCI Hazelton was a very unique experience. The administration was extremely helpful and welcoming. All of the inmates were polite and eager to speak with us. I thought the prison visit went really well. It was an awesome experience getting to converse with the inmates. This was my first time in a prison and I was very impressed. I'm excited to continue working with the inmates on reentry issues. The prison counselors were very kind and helpful. The inmates were all respectful and appreciative of our services. I am grateful for this opportunity to help veterans.
Moving forward, the WVU Clinical Law Program will seek to fill this assistance void. At least once a month, clinical students from the VAC and Innocence Project will meet with this same group of veterans, and speak with them. On the next visit, scheduled for March 16, the clinics will present the veterans with a lesson on applying for VA benefits, in which the students will help the veterans complete benefit forms and explain how the process works. Topics for follow-up visits will be determined based on the needs of the veterans and what they want to learn about. It is a small step forward, but one that these veterans are extremely grateful for. While some may choose to ignore it, the fact is that the vast majority of these veterans will be returning to society at some point in their lifetime. We owe it to them, and society as a whole, to ensure that we help equip them with knowledge that will help them as they reenter, and hopefully prevent their return into the system. We also owe it to these veterans to help them obtain the benefits they, and their families, are rightfully entitled to as a result of their service to our country. They may be inmates now, but eventually they will be citizens again, and they will always be veterans.