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September/october 2008

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At the Leadership Conference in Greenville, VIC presented a seminar entitled “VIC 101: Introduction to Veterans Incarcerated Chapters.” We presented the seminar initially to the VMW Convention and VVA Leadership Conference late Thursday afternoon, although we had to compete with a live band on Main St. On Saturday morning, VIC vice-chair Tom Burke and I, already challenged by the 45-minute allotment, experienced a fire alarm and hotel evacuation that encroached even more on our time.

Upon my return from South Carolina and a visit with family and old friends in North Carolina, I encountered an unexpected backlog of VIC mail forwarded from The VVA Veteran. While on the road for two weeks, I managed to stay abreast of the seemingly endless flow of email associated with VVA National business, but I was daunted by the task of reading and responding to dozens of kites—also known as prison correspondence.

Prisoners write a lot of kites. Most ask for help with problems, ask questions, or have issues that need immediate attention. There are prison medical requests and grievance forms, inmate correspondence and package forms, and all kinds of questions involving programming and education needs.

There also are questions and anxieties about parole or cellmates and unit housing assignments; endless questions and problems for caseworkers and counselors to manage; many questions about classification issues that end up in the warden’s lap; appeals to directors, governors, and legislators, as well as the courts and newspapers, Congress, or anybody who may help or be empathetic. The term comes from the saying: “Why don’t you fly a kite to the warden?” or “Write a kite to the Captain,” or jokingly, “If you really want that bed move, drop a snitch kite.”

Prisoners are creative and write on any available medium. Many are prolific, particularly those who are litigious, the dreaded “writ writers.” In an attempt to channel this energy, some institutions permit prisoner newspapers such as The Angolite at the Louisiana State Prison. Another example: The Eagle Speaks from the Fountain/Davis Correctional Facility in Alabama, America’s “Oldest Continuing Veterans Incarcerated Newsletter.”

The higher a staff member moves through corrections or is perceived as having influence or “juice,” the more kites he receives. The number of responses to the Veterans Incarcerated Report took me back to my days in Nevada prison yards and the dilemma of responding to letters.

VIC 101 dealt with the issue of “What We Can and Cannot Do,” what we, as a veterans’ service organization, can expect to accomplish working inside prisons. Reading kites involves sorting them into four piles. One large stack requesting counsel and legal help is given a very low response priority because VVA does not have the funds or staff to support these types of requests.

Quite a few of the kites involve veteran eligibility benefit issues and contain questions that require help from trained veteran service officers. The State Councils and local Chapters may help with this only if they are fortunate enough to have a service officer able to enter the prison. However, the VA has now hired veteran re-entry specialists in all the VISNs. Incarcerated veteran organizations should seek out these VA re-entry specialists and invite them to attend meetings and contact prison administrators to facilitate VA re-entry services. VVA State Councils should encourage their state Veterans Commissions to consider providing basic veteran service assistance to justice-involved veterans in jail or prison.

A third pile of kites is from incarcerated veterans seeking programs that provide transitional residential services. Some older veterans are unable to work and need mental health and rehabilitative help. Programs to help these veterans are few and far between, but new re-entry beds are becoming available through the VA and some community nonprofit organizations. Veterans with patterns of serious violence or sexual offenses often face insurmountable obstacles for release and often are denied acceptance in residential treatment programs.

There were some letters that were easily resolved, particularly those writing because they have not received the last copies of The Veteran. There were several letters from veterans sending me greetings and information about their incarcerated programs and activities. I appreciate hearing from them and will read these kites and help where and how I can. I apologize for being unable to respond directly to many of these letters, but rest assured I read them and am quite empathetic to many of the problems and issues facing veterans in prison. I will address some of these issues in future Veterans Incarcerated Reports. In the meantime, feel free to fly me a kite.



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