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VA Connecticut Healthcare System

 

VA provides new hope for veterans leaving prison

Michele Roberts, Veterans Justice Outreach Coordinator

Michele Roberts, Veterans Justice Outreach Coordinator

By Tom Cramer, VHA Office of Communication
Tuesday, April 21, 2015

The good news: You’ve been in prison for a while, but now they’re finally letting you out.

The bad news: You’re pretty much penniless, and you have no place to go.

If you happen to be a Veteran in this predicament, don’t worry. A VA social worker named Michele Roberts is going to make everything all right.

“I love working with the prison population,” said Roberts, who works at the West Haven VA in Connecticut. “I think people deserve a second chance. People do bad things, but that doesn’t make them bad people. It just means they’re people who need help. It’s my job to help them.”

And she takes her job seriously. It consists of traveling around to no less than 17 different state prisons and visiting incarcerated Vets who are about to be released.

“I’ll come in and do an evaluation on you,” she explained. “I’ll get a psychiatric and substance abuse history on you. I’ll figure out what you need, then I’ll figure out how to get it. If you need a place to live, I make sure you have a place to live. If you need psychiatric care, or medication, I make sure you get it.

“I’m looking at the big picture,” she continued. “I want you to have access to all the resources and services you’ll need to succeed, to become part of the community again and to stay out of jail.”

Divine Intervention
Jeffrey Murdock, a 55-year-old Navy Veteran, said Roberts essentially saved his life the day she came to visit him in prison.

“Michele came out and interviewed me three different times,” he explained. “She’s a wonderful person. It was like an angel had walked through the door.”

Murdock, who suffers from depression and also has multiple scleroses, said that without Roberts’ intervention he would have been taken from his prison cell straight to a state mental hospital.

“I wasn’t allowed to go home,” he said, “and they couldn’t release me onto the street. I wasn’t very pleased with myself that I ended up in this situation. I guess ‘depressed’ is a good word to describe how I was feeling.”

So how did he end up in that situation, anyway?

“I got into a fight with my girlfriend so they arrested me for threatening,” he said. “I did 90 days. But then when I got out I did the same thing again; I violated my probation, so that’s when I landed in prison for 10 months.”

“He’s the first guy I got out of jail since I started working for the VA, and he’s doing great,” Michele Roberts beamed. “He completed his anger management program, and he sees a primary care doctor and a psychiatrist at the New Haven VA. He sees his probation officer every month. Jeff is my shining star.”

“I’m not sure about that,” Murdock said. “Michele did her part, and I did mine, that’s all. She made it possible for me to help myself. She got me into transitional housing. I have a case manager now. I’ve taken the ball and I’m running with it.”

My Friends Think I’m Crazy
Michele Roberts is well suited for the work she does. She spent 22 years working for the Connecticut Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, including 13 years at the New Haven County Court House doing jail diversion work.

“I have a lot of experience working with the seriously mentally ill,” she said, “so my new job here at the VA is a perfect fit for me. I’d say well over half my Veterans have a mental illness, a substance abuse disorder, or both.”

Roberts said of the 17 prisons on her list, she’s able to hit about five each week on her never-ending search for Veterans in need of a helping hand.

“My friends think I’m crazy,’ she said, “but I love this work. Just because you’re in prison doesn’t mean you’re not a good guy. It just means you made a mistake. Sometimes having an advocate, just one person in your corner, can make all the difference. It gives you some hope.”

Roberts has helped a number of Veterans get on their feet and adjust to life on the outside, but has she ever run across an incarcerated Veteran who just couldn’t be saved?

“Sure,” she said. “Sometimes you’ll get a paranoid schizophrenic or somebody like that, and they don’t want anything to do with you. They’re just too ill. But that’s a rarity. Most of these guys are stable. They’re taking their medication. And they’re respectful. They know I’m going to help them.”

One particular Veteran, however, has thrown her for a bit of a loop.

“I had one guy who was very mentally ill,” she explained. “He got out of prison at the same time Jeff did. In fact, they had been on the same unit together, so they knew each other. I placed him in the community, just like I did with Jeff. I got him everything he needed. He was doing great. Then one day, out of the blue, he tried to rob somebody. Now he’s back in jail. That totally broke my heart…

“But I’m not giving up on him. I’ll be there when they let him out again. A lot of these Veterans don’t have any people around to support them; they’re all alone because they’ve burned every bridge. But they can never burn their bridges with me. They have an unlimited number of chances with me.”

To learn more about how VA is helping Veterans when it comes to post incarceration services, visit www.benefits.va.gov/PERSONA/veteran-incarcerated.asp

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