Women veterans behind bars

Eileen C. Moore
Associate Justice,
California Courts of Appeal

Daily Journal

Women veterans behind bars - America must do more to keep women veterans out of jail.
by Eileen C. Moore


In a former life, Justice Eileen Moore served as a combat nurse in Vietnam in the Army Nurse Corps. She was awarded the Vietnam Service Medal, the National Defense Service Medal and the Cross of Gallantry with Palm. She is a member of Vietnam Veterans of America. Since 2008,she has chaired the Judicial Council' Veterans and Military Families Subcommittee. She is a member of the American Bar Association's Standing Committee on Armed Forces Law, is an advisor to the California Lawyers Association's Military and Veterans Committee andthe Orange County Veterans & Military Committee as well as a founding member of USVets' Women's Advisory Committee. She is the author of two award-winning books, Race Results and Gender Results.
It's not just military men returning to civilian life who can find themselves behind bars.Approximately 1,800 women veterans in the U.S. are incarcerated. The crimes women tend to commit suggest struggles with reintegration into the civilian environment. Crime & Delinquency, Vol. 65(14) 1925-1948 (2019).
What experts are finding about women vets who commit crimes
A big problem is transitioning out of the military. When in the military, servicemembers must acquire new skills and manners in dealing with others, often quite rigid.But there is no deprogramming process. Thus, human interactions can be difficult when first discharged because skills acquired in the military are not easily transferable into a civilian lifestyle. Added to that adjustment requirement, returning women veterans often have little or no time to readapt to civilian life because they must immediately begin caring for their children.
Military women who served in medical-related occupations often had more positive experiences than those who did not. But the more historically male the military challenge, the more difficult it can be for females. While the Crime & Delinquency study found there was no difference between female Army and Marine veterans, both primarily combat ground branches, females in the Air Force or Navy, where job specialties are less focused on ground-level combat, had fewer arrests.
Long-term military service, however, is associated with a low chance of being arrested.Each additional year spent in the military has been correlated with a 5.1% decrease in the expected number of lifetime arrests. Females who were older when entering the military, had a longer length of service, and had a satisfactory discharge had significantly fewer arrests.

Health issues

A 2019 National Research Center report says that lack of available health care is associated with criminal behavior, and if a woman had a negative experience in the military, it sometimes causes her to refrain from seeking medical help from the Department of Veterans Affairs after discharge. The Crime & Delinquency study pointed out that "the well-documented substandard VA services offered to female veterans compared with males."
Jessica Blue-Howells, the VA's national coordinator for reentry veterans, says the health issues for women veterans are different than for male veterans. She points out that in the culture of male dominance found in the military, enlisted women are more likely to have experienced trauma, adding that the risk is highest in women who are 18 to 29 years old. She says in a criminal justice setting, it is likely that 100% of women have had multiple trauma experiences. Another study concluded that women veterans who suffered military sexual trauma are nine times more likely to develop Post-traumatic Stress Disorder than women veterans without such experiences, and their PTSD symptoms are more severe. Psychiatric Services 67:1, January 2016.


Homelessness is a known risk factor for criminal behavior. In a Women's Health Issues study of 524 incarcerated women veterans, nearly a third of them had a history of homelessness prior to incarceration. The NRC report says that 53% of homeless women veterans were victims of military sexual trauma, and the traumas incarcerated female veterans face may be doubled due to suffering from abuse.
Researchers have concluded that women veterans' risk of homelessness is tied to a period of high vulnerability when re-entering civilian life. That is particularly so if they head families with small children and cannot afford childcare, rendering them unable to pursue employment and education the same way men veterans can.
What veteran housing is available is often gender mixed, where safety issues such assexual harassment and assault are not addressed. In
Sharon T. v. New Directions,2:2015cv04239 (C.D. Cal., filed June 5, 2015), while a woman vet who had been sexuallyassaulted in the military tried to recuperate in a veterans' facility housing 122 males andsix females, she was again assaulted.
To make matters worse for women vets, the Council of State Governments reports that nationally, people who were formerly incarcerated are almost 10 times more likely to experience homelessness than the general public. Thus, incarcerating them makes them more vulnerable to homelessness when they are released.

Barracks behind bars

The National Institute of Corrections reports that by housing veterans together in an environment that inspires military culture and values, veteran units within prisons promote restoration, healing and growth in a way that may not be possible via general population housing.
The Washington State Department of Corrections has had a program for women vets in its Corrections Center for Women for the past several years headed by vet Sharon Kirkpatrick. Incarcerated women veterans meet every month. Kirkpatrick says that underreporting of veteran status occurs because veterans often feel a sense of shame.They don't view themselves as veterans anymore, simply because they are in prison. It's when she questions women inmates about their employment history, and they tell her they don't have an employment history because they were in the military, that she finds out they are veterans. She says what's unique about Washington's program is that it exists at all, noting that prisons justify the absence of programming for women veterans because women are only 10% of the population of veterans, and only 7% of the population of inmates. She laments, however, that she has not been given the go-ahead to expand her vision by installing a women veterans' pod.
The Pennsylvania Department of Corrections did just that. Pennsylvania opened the nation's first female veterans housing unit. Its program recognizes that no matter what branch of the armed services the female vets once served in, they all know the sense of camaraderie, teamwork and pride that comes with serving their country. The program provides veteran-specific services and workshops that includes mental health services,life skills, substance abuse programs and educational courses. Beyond the services, the programs offer veterans a chance to re-establish bonds they developed in the military to revive their sense of teamwork and pride.
At least two counties in California, Orange and San Diego, offer jailed women vets specialized services and programs, but not separate pods.

No VA treatment while incarcerated

A particularly sad part of the process of locking up veterans who were damaged in the military is that the VA does not provide treatment for conditions they developed as a result of military service while they are incarcerated. With all that time on their hands and no children to tend or households to run, incarcerated women veterans could benefit from intensive treatment and be better able to meet their responsibilities when released.
Why doesn't the VA treat incarcerated veterans? Well, the agency decided to pass a regulation and assume a practice of not providing any medical or mental health care to veterans who are incarcerated.
The source of the regulation is found in 38 U.S.C. Section 1710 (h), which states:"Nothing in this section requires the [VA] Secretary to furnish care to a veteran to whom another agency of Federal, State, or local government has a duty under law to provide care in an institution of such government." Congress gave the VA authority to adopt a regulation for that statute in 38 U.S.C. Section 1721. The VA's regulation is found in 38 C.F.R. Section 17.38 (c)(5). It states that the VA will not provide "hospital and outpatient care for a veteran who is either a patient or inmate in an institution of another government agency if that agency has a duty to give the care or services."
The VA's regulation, leaving it up to the jails and prisons to provide care, makes sense from a fiscal standpoint. But from a moral stance, it's disgraceful. These vets signed up to serve with a promise their country would provide treatment for line of duty harms.
Jails and prisons have no "duty" to provide the kind of specialized care injured vets need. The VA's regulation seems reasonable if care of the inmate involves a bone fracture or an emergency appendectomy. But when the prisoner has Traumatic Brain Injury resulting from an explosion or PTSD after being raped, how is the typical prison doctor or nurse capable of appropriately responding? Ask the same question about a small-town jail and the whole notion is preposterous.
Shame on the VA for deciding not to provide needed therapy and other treatment to incarcerated veterans for injuries they suffered in the military.


The VA has, however, stepped up to the plate for incarcerated veterans who are about to reenter the community. Its program is titled Health Care for Re-entry Veterans Services and Resources, HCRV. It is designed to promote success and prevent homelessness among veterans returning home after incarceration. Each state has a point of contact person. According to the VA's website, California's poc is: Stephen Spiegel [Stephen.Spiegel@va.gov].

Veterans Treatment Courts

Veterans Treatment Courts could be the ideal way for women veterans to avoid incarceration in the first place. VTCs were established to address the needs of veterans facing criminal charges to try to avoid incarcerating them. They operate independently from the VA, but the VA supports them. A 2018 national VTC participant article says94.8% of VTC participants were male, and includes no analysis about female veterans.
The Crime & Delinquency study concluded that the gender-neutral component ofVTCs is alarming because of the gender-specific risk factors for engaging in crime. It says that specialized programming has been available for men veterans, and that gender responsive programs and practices are needed.
Local courts do the best they can to serve the needs of their communities in a world where the Legislature authorizes VTCs, but provides no extra money to fund them. Most veterans are male, so VTCs designed to serve male veterans is sometimes allcourts are able to do. I have little doubt that judges would also like treatment courts specially designed for women vets.
The following is some of what I observed when I was a mentor in a VTC for nine years.
One young woman was so frightened to go into group therapy with military men, she begged the judge to order group therapy with women only. But the VA was providing the therapy and it did not offer women-only therapy. The woman dropped out of the VTC, opting to go to jail instead, saying she'd feel safer in jail. I never asked her, but I felt certain she had been sexually assaulted in the military.
Another time, I sat next to my mentee while we waited for the courtroom doors to open. She had previously told me she had been sexually assaulted in the military, A group of male mentors, all vets, were chatting with their male mentees, all vets. Their conversation went to a discussion of a certain woman's breast size. I could feel my mentee tense, and I thought I saw her eyes fill up.
Next, one of my mentees had her babysitter cancel just before she was to leave for a court-ordered VA appointment. She called every other babysitter on her list but found none available. As she had no relatives in California, she took her children with her to the appointment. The probation officer was not happy she brought the kids. She was ordered to write an essay on setting the right priorities.
Lastly, the rules of the VTC required 17 hours a week productive use of time, in addition to all the court sessions and court-ordered appointment with VA representatives,mental health professionals and probation officers. My mentee had small children and spent much of her time taking the kids to and from various medical and dental appointments, pre-schools and play dates. She was told that time did not count as productive use of her time.


In almost every way, many women veterans who end up behind bars have gotten the short end of the stick. Because they were traumatized, they were unable to cope with transitioning into civilian life and became homeless. Mentally ill, they committed a crime. While incarcerated, they do not have access to the specialized veteran pods that many men veterans have. Nor do they have access to the focused medical and mental health care for their in-service injuries that only the VA is equipped to provide.
Perhaps the real question we should all be asking is why many of these women veterans are incarcerated at all. According to the NRC report, because women veterans often reach higher education levels, tend to have little or no criminal history and have strengths that can be mobilized, they present minimal risks for future criminal behavior. Noteworthy is that in one study, all of the women veterans received an honorable discharge and in the other studies most of them did.
America should be providing adequate services when women separate from the service so incarceration can be avoided.