Monday, November 30, 2015
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Wounds of War: Veterans on Death Row….OC Will Have WatchDog for Its Embattled DA …Thursday Summit on Race & Justice In U.S.

November 12th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


According to a new report by the Death Penalty Information Center, approximately ten percent of those on death row in America right now are military veterans. In terms of numbers that means approximately 300 inmate veterans are awaiting execution.

Legal rulings have tended to dismiss the connection between battle trauma and violence that occurs when the traumatized warrior returns home, notes the report, never mind an 89 percent rise in homicides by veterans following the invasion of Afghanistan, compared with a six-year period before 9/11.

According to the report, over 800,000 Vietnam veterans suffered from PTSD. At least 175,000 veterans of Operation Desert Storm were affected by ‘Gulf War Illness,’ which has been linked to brain cancer and other mental deficits. Over 300,000 veterans from the Afghanistan and Iraq conflicts have PTSD. “In one study, only about half had received treatment in the prior year.”

The report’s author, Richard C. Dieter, writes that “when many of these veterans faced death penalty trials, their service and related illnesses were barely touched on as their lives were being weighed by judges and juries.”

In an Veteran’s Day Op Ed written for USA Today, three retired U.S. military generals also express concern about the high number of military veterans on death row, many of whom, they say, have diagnoses that should have been considered at sentencing time. The generals note that “the first person executed in the United States this year, Andrew Brannan, was a Vietnam veteran who had been granted 100% disability because of his Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and other problems stemming from his military service.”

So is this really what we want to be doing? The three former generals think not, and they are an impressive group. Retired Brig. Gen. James P. Cullen, is also a former judge for the U.S. Army Court of Criminal Appeals. Retired Brig. Gen. David R. Irvine,is a former Deputy Commander of the 96th U.S. Army Reserve Command, and retired Brig. Gen. Stephen N. Xenakis, is a physician and an adjunct clinical professor at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences.

They point to other death row vets, such as James Davis, also a Vietnam veteran with PTSD.

“[Davis} belatedly received his Purple Heart medal on death row in North Carolina, thanks to the work of a fellow veteran and therapist and a pastor, Jim Johnson, who visited Davis. When Johnson pinned the medal on him, Davis saluted proudly, before retreating back into the darkness of his mental problems. He could still be executed today for the murders he committed in 1995, and he has all but given up his appeals.”

And then there is John Thuesen, a veteran of the Iraq conflict, who is on death row in Texas. According to the generals, Thuesen’s PTSD was not properly diagnosed or treated. And his lawyers did little “to explain his condition to the jury that convicted him of murdering his ex-girlfriend.”

Surely men who murder their girlfriends must be held appropriately to answer, no matter how disturbed they are, or why. And, it needs to be said that, most military vets who come home with emotional wounds do not hurt anybody.

But a few do.

Thus, the question is, should the mental and emotional damage they sustained in the service of their country be taken into consideration if they have done something so horrific that capital punishment is on the table?

Many think the answer is: Yes. But not everyone. Yet, the three generals—and the new report—-say we need to revisit this issue:

“In a criminal sentencing hearing, PTSD should be a strong mitigating factor,” write the generals. “It’s not an excuse or a demand for acquittal. However, the very symptoms that define PTSD can be frightening to a jury if not carefully explained by a mental health expert familiar with the illness. Defense attorneys are often not adequately prepared to investigate and present this kind of evidence; prosecutors or judges might dismiss it because others with similar combat experiences did not murder anyone.”

And “perhaps,” the generals conclude, “some of the blame should be more broadly shared, because we sometimes choose to look away when a veteran’s scars are not the kind that we know how to cope with.”

Report author Dieter agrees. “We want smiling veterans returning home,” Dieter says in an interview with the Christian Science Monitor. “But the side of somebody who goes off to the dark side and commits murder, we don’t … want to explore those wounds.”

No one is suggesting we should walk away from punishment, Dieter says. “…This is all about how extreme the punishment should be, and the understanding that people who served and who have been wounded mentally deserve help.”


In a 3-2 vote on Tuesday, the Orange County Board of Supervisors voted to extend the oversight that is presently newly focused on the Orange County Sheriff’s Department, to also include oversight of the OC District Attorney’s office—along with the Public Defender’s offices, probation and social services.

But, to be clear: the main focus of this expansion of watch-dogging activity is aimed at the embattled DA’s office, and its snitch scandal.

Not surprisingly, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas is opposed to the new oversight.

In fact, Rackauckas appears to be fighting the watch-dogging in what ever way he is able. Most recently, the DA shot off a 14-page letter to the OC Supes detailing why he won’t agree to an attorney-client relationship in which an oversight office would have access to confidential files.

Despite the widening scandal on the use of jailhouse informants, Rackaukas and his office have planted their collective feet and insisted they have not done anything wrong, even after Orange County Superior Court Judge Thomas M. Goethals recused the entire DA’s office in March from the case of the Seal Beach killer, People v. Scott Dekraai, because of the agency’s unconstitutional use of snitches to attempt to question defendants.

The body that will be doing the oversight is the Orange County Office of Independent Review, which is part of the larger group, the Office of Independent Review Group (OIR), which is located in Los Angeles, and which—up until 2014—oversaw the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department. In short, they are veterans of such wars for access to information, and appear to have benefited from their battle scars.

KPCC’s Erica Aguilar has more on the matter of Tuesday’s vote. Here’s a clip from her story:

“We don’t know the extent of the scandal in the District Attorney’s office. We don’t know how many convictions are tainted because of it ” said, Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of UC-Irvine’s Law School.

Unlike the county public defender, which is appointed — the District Attorney and Sheriff are elected officials. Rackauckas and Sheriff Sandra Hutchens’ terms end in 2018.

Chemerinsky continues to call for the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate potential wrongdoing in the OC District Attorney’s in regards to jailhouse informants. The U.S. Attorney’s Office said it continues to keep an eye on law enforcement in the county. Chemerinsky’s also called on the Attorney General Kamala Harris to investigate Orange County’s jailhouse informant scandal but that hasn’t happened.

He said an inspector general model–like that adopted for the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department– would be one way to provide prosecutorial oversight of the district attorney in Orange County. The U.S. Attorney’s Office also has an inspector general within the department.

Ideally, an oversight body would have the ability to investigate and subpoena, said Chemerinsky.

“Often the way in which wrongdoing is learned is through whistleblowers,” he said. “And you need somebody for the whistleblower to go to and you need protection for the whistleblower.”

Instead, District Attorney Tony Rackauckas continues to send letters to the OC Board of Supervisors wailing about the idea of oversight, calling it redundant and overreaching.

Fortunately, a majority of three of the OC Supes were wise enough not to listen.

For more on the history of the OC Snitch Scandal read the remarkable coverage by Scott Moxley of the OC Weekly, which is compiled here.


Following Ta-Nehisi Coates’ October 2015 cover story, “The Black Family in the Age of Mass Incarceration,” which explores “the devastating impact decades of mass incarceration has had on African-American families,” Atlantic Magazine holds an all day summit in Washington D.C., on the same topic, that live screens here.

The summit’s panelists include advocates, police, district attorneys, academics, writers, representatives from the White House, and more.

Take a look.

The summit is live streaming right now, but we’ll link to post-summit coverage when it’s over, so check back.

Posted in Veterans | 2 Comments »

To Our Nation’s Veterans….We Are Deeply Grateful for Your Service.

November 11th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon

Today’s Veteran’s Day offerings both feature the remarkable Jason Isbell, singing Tour of Duty and Dress Blues. In the first video, he is accompanied by his wife, singer-songwriter/violinist Amanda Shires, in the second, by Ms. Shires and by Isbell’s fine band, The 400 Unit.

If you’ve never heard Isbell sing before, play Dress Blue’s first. (Then play everything else of his you can find.)

Posted in Veterans | No Comments »

Veterans in Jail, the New Prez of the LAPD Commission, and LAPD Chief Beck on Body Cams

September 17th, 2015 by Taylor Walker


At the Vista Detention Facility in San Diego County, veterans who find themselves on the wrong side of the law are placed in “modules” focused on healing, rather than punishing, men who are wrestling with any combination of PTSD, substance abuse, and homelessness.

The jail’s two modules, specifically tailored to the unique needs of veterans, offer vets a chance to deal with the struggles of life after active duty that helped put them behind bars. Vista’s vet modules provides a level of discipline and routine that’s familiar and comforting to the former military men, as well as daily classes, yoga, therapy, and the company of other veterans (even the guards are vets).

Note: currently, there are no comparable offerings in the US for female vets, who are subject to the same war-related traumas as their male counterparts.

The Crime Report’s Katti Gray has more on the Vista veterans program. Here’s a clip:

A year—to the day—after his baby brother was shot dead in a Kansas prairie town, German Villegas’ best buddy in Afghanistan was killed by a bomb he’d been ordered to find and defuse.

“We were both on the list to search for explosives,” Villegas recalled.

But U.S. Marine Corps Cpl. Michael J. Palacios was the one dispatched that day in November 2012. “He got hit by a 200-pound IED,” two months before both men were slated to go home, Villegas said.

Villegas returned stateside, a shattered man.

“My number-one goal was to get drunk and just try to forget everything,” said the 23-year-old, who joined the Marines straight out of high school and spent five years there. Fired from the military police, he was shunted into what he calls “punitive duties” that had him cleaning up after battalion officers and picking up trash.

But the worst were the funeral details.

“(That) was the completely wrong thing for me to have to do,” he continued. “Every time I did one of these funerals, I’m seeing these families crying. I became pretty good at compartmentalizing—or so I thought.”

Villegas was sitting that afternoon in the communal area outside an all-male cell block at a San Diego County Sheriff’s Department jail, where he landed after being arrested for an assault on his fiancée. A few feet away, at the Vista Detention Facility, stood one of the armed deputy sheriffs, also a veteran, who asked to be assigned to that cell block. Just beyond that deputy was a Marine Corps retiree and correctional counselor who directs Vista’s almost two-year-old Veterans Moving Forward Program.

One of a handful of such projects in the United States, the program makes available to convicted ex-military men and those awaiting trial—including those like Villegas who’ve been diagnosed with mental illness—counseling, peer-to-peer support and other amenities rarely extended to people behind bars.

Minutes before Villegas gave a visitor his take on what war extracts from combatants and innocents alike, he had queued up at a nurse’s cart, where anti-psychotic and other prescribed drugs were dispensed to jailed veterans with mental illnesses. (Those with only physical ailments also filled their prescriptions.)

Villegas’ meds are intended to help him stave off anxiety, depression and the flashbacks, nightmares, hyper-arousal, hyper-alertness and exponential moodiness that are among the symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. Such maladies are likely what triggered his admitted episode of violence. For Villegas, like so many other criminally charged veterans, had no history of illegal activity prior to military service.

“Jail is the last place I thought I would end up and the last place I thought I would find help, but this program has become a foundation that I can trust,” Villegas said. “The moment I came here and saw those military flags on the walls, it brought me to tears. There’s a brotherhood here … and there are things here that I need to restore my mental health, to get whole again.”


Matt Johnson, the newest Los Angeles Police Department commission president, also happens to be the only black member of the commission tasked with overseeing the LAPD.

When Johnson was growing up in New Jersey in the 80′s, he said he was on the receiving end of both racial prejudice from law enforcement officers and kindness from the cops who were friends with his dad. Johnson says this gives him the perspective needed to take on police-community relations issues.

But some community members criticize LA Mayor Eric Garcetti’s appointment of Johnson, who is an entertainment lawyer, instead of someone who is a grassroots community advocate.

The LA Times’ Kate Mather has the story. Here’s a clip:

Richard Drooyan, a former Police Commission president, said the board’s role as the “eyes and ears of the community” is particularly important at this moment given the public desire for increased accountability of police. Johnson, he said, must be “willing to criticize when mistakes are made and support the department when the department is right.”

In one of its most important roles, the board decides whether police shootings and other serious uses of force were appropriate. It’s a responsibility that has come under greater scrutiny as police officers across the country have increasingly been criticized for how they use force, particularly against black men.

Activists have blasted the LAPD and commissioners for some of the police shootings in Los Angeles. LAPD officers have shot 28 people so far this year, half of whom were killed.

Some of the most vocal critics are affiliated with the Black Lives Matter movement, including some who denounced Mayor Eric Garcetti for putting Johnson on the Police Commission. They said they wanted an anti-gang activist on the board instead of another person who donated to Garcetti’s campaign.

When asked about the criticism, Johnson said the Black Lives Matter movement had “shined a light on very important issues.”

“The bottom line is, there is an alarming number of African Americans across our country who have been killed by police,” Johnson said. “A large part of the reason that I agreed to join the commission is that I’m concerned about it, and I believe I can play a positive role in reducing those incidents.”

Paula Madison, the outgoing commissioner who has been the board’s only African American member since 2013, described Johnson as a friend who works with quiet deliberation, someone who understood the impact he could have as a black man on the Police Commission.

“If you get the opportunity to help set policies, you take it very seriously,” she said. “And knowing Matt, he’s going to take this very seriously.”

Head over to Mathers’ story to read more about Johnson’s background and what he hopes to accomplish while serving as a commissioner.


On Wednesday’s on Air Talk, host Larry Mantle talked with LAPD Chief Charlie Beck about how the department’s implementation of officer body cameras is going, so far, and about recent pushback from the ACLU about when and how much video footage should be released to the public. The ACLU has asked the Department of Justice not to contribute funding to the LAPD’s body cam program because the department will not be actively releasing video showing officer-involved shootings.

Here’s Chief Beck’s response:

Well, the ACLU is welcome to offer whatever recommendations they want to whoever they want, but I don’t agree with them, I don’t think the federal government will agree with them either. Body cameras, and I’m wearing one right now as we talk and you can see it, are an evidence-collection tool, just like detectives are, just like the coroner’s investigation is, just like many many pieces of an investigation. We don’t release investigations piecemeal. Body camera footage is available for review by the district attorney, by the city attorney, by a civil court, by a criminal court, and in cases of uses of force that rise to the appropriate level, by the civilian police commission. So there are multiple levels of review, and to merely put video into the public without further investigatory information I think is inappropriate.

Of course, the concern is that the department is going to release the video when it suits its interests, not so quick to do so when it makes the department the gatekeeper. How do you respond to that concern?

I respond to it by looking at my track record. I’ve been Chief for five years now. We’ve had in-car video for that whole time, and I haven’t released that video when it supports my position or when it is detrimental to my position or to the department. I use it as part of the investigation; it is not something I use to form public opinion. It’s an investigative tool. That is not to say that I would never release video. If the state of the city depends on it, then that would weigh heavily on my decision. But in the day-to-day incidents of policing. One of the things I like to remind folks is that when you call the Los Angeles Police Department, it’s not on your best day. It never is. We go to your house. There may have been a domestic incident. You may have been the victim of a crime. It could be any number of circumstances. None of which you want put in the public domain. At least, all of the victims I’ve ever talked to. And so we want to be very circumspect, we want to be the guardians of the public trust. When people interact with the police, I think they have a right to some privacy in that condition.

Posted in Charlie Beck, LAPD, PTSD, Veterans | 8 Comments »

LA Jail Building Vote Rescheduled So Supes Can Take a NEW new Vote, This Time Legally….Veterans Help Each Other Heal in Prison……Does a NY Prison Have a “Beat Up Squad?”…Education in Prison Saves $$$ – UPDATED

August 19th, 2015 by Celeste Fremon


As we reported Tuesday morning, last week’s August 11 vote by the LA County Board of Supervisors to move ahead on a compromise version of the costly and controversial jail rebuilding plan turned out to be…illegal. It seems it was not calendared on the board’s agenda, thus it violated the Brown Act, which guarantees that the public—i.e. the rest of us—will be notified in advance that such a vote is going to take place in order to be able to participate in the decision making process in the form of public comment.

Thus, as of Tuesday, the vote has been scheduled to be re-voted on Sept. 1, complete with plenty of time for public discussion.

We are genuinely curious about what the supervisors thinking in blasting the vote through last week without putting it on the agenda properly. Instead, after multiple years of discussing this puppy, it was rushed through as a sort of rider on another scheduled vote—namely the mental health diversion plan—as if it was simply a minor amendment of no consequence, instead of a hugely controversial multi-year project that will cost upwards of $2 billion.

It didn’t matter that, before the illegal vote, ACLU’s Peter Eliasberg threatened every kind of lawsuit he could think of, and other jail reform advocates threatened similar measures.

But then, on August 13, two days after the vote, District Attorney Jackie Lacey wrote the board a short, pleasant, but very firm letter advising the five Brown Act scofflaws that they’d better fix things. Like, now.

The supes did as they were told. Sort of. They didn’t actually rescind the illegal August 11 vote. Instead, they approved a motion by Supervisor Mike Antonovich to redo the vote legally on the new date, while leaving the old vote on the books in the meantime. The reason for leaving the old vote intact until a new vote could replace it was to avoid missing a strict deadline to apply for $100 million in state money that would help to finance the Mira Loma women’s jail. (Fear of losing the $100 mill was much of the reason the Supes engaged in their tortured efforts to make the legally challenged vote happen in the first place.)

Here’s the letter: Letter to Board of Supervisors

NOTE: This story was updated to correct our earlier erroneous report that the vote had been rescinded in order to reschedule it.


A Washington state prison houses convicted military veterans together, seeking to capitalize on their shared experiences to promote healing and their eventual transition to the outside. Washington is one of the handful of states that have instituted programs where vets are grouped in a special unit. Florida, Oregon, Virginia, and Colorado are some of the others.

Stafford Creek Corrections Center in Aberdeen, Washington is one such prison where the process seems tentatively to be working.

Patricia Murphy, reporting for KPCC as part of the KUOW/American Homefront Project, has more on the issue:

Here’s a clip:

“We want to recapture that positive stuff that they learned in the military and them have them apply it to civilian life,” McElravy said.

The 90 or so men move about their unit freely. The walls are painted with armed forces insignia and flags.

The program is attractive to prison officials largely because it doesn’t cost extra money. Inmates with non-violent behavior while in prison are eligible; they work with the State Department of Veterans Affairs to sign up for VA benefits, services and job training.

Inmate Michael Kent began serving time for robbery in 2011 and came to the vets pod a year and a half ago.

“When I came to the pod, people greeted me. I was like, ‘Whoa, something is different here,’” Kent said. A common background helped to foster a sense of responsibility.

“There wasn’t all the politics. There wasn’t all the other garbage to be involved in,” he said. “All they were trying to do is help each other out. “

A story by Matthew Wolfe that ran late last month in the Daily Beast tells of a prison in Virginia with its own veterans’ pod, that is also seeing early intimations of success. Here’s a clip from that story:

Butler County’s Judge McCune, who spent a decade as a prosecutor, admits that veterans do receive treatment that, in a perfect world, would be available to all defendants. But he sees rehabilitating soldiers afflicted with combat trauma as a special moral imperative.

“If you’re willing to give your life to protect your country, we as a society have an obligation to help you deal with some of the problems attached to that service,” he said. “We’re trying not to make the same mistakes we made after Vietnam.”

In Haynesville, each veteran is assigned a position in the dorm. Recently the other inmates voted Corporal Boyd senior coordinator, making him the dorm’s unofficial leader. In previous facilities, Boyd tried to kept his veteran status under wraps—a challenge, as his right shoulder bears a massive tattoo reading “USMC.”

“A lot of guys don’t take kindly to you being in the military,” Boyd said. “A guy might be like, ‘What? You think you’re better than me?’ It’s better to keep quiet.”

In the veterans dorm, though, fights are almost nonexistent. If a conflict between inmates arises, there’s an intervention where everyone sits down and hash it out internally. The mood is calm and the dorm orderly. In the morning, racks are made, shoes squared away. Boyd and another group of vets meet for PTSD group on Thursday. The unit holds veterans from five different wars, and the average age of the dorm is a decade or two older than the inmates in gen pop. Boyd told me the level of trust was such that no one bothered to lock their footlockers.

“Everyone’s on the same page,” Boyd said. “We just want to do our time and go home.”


The New Times’ Michael Winerip and Michael Schwirtz have written a very soberly reported story about a group of guards who work in the Fishkill Correctional Facility, a medium-security prison in Beacon, N.Y., about 60 miles north of New York City, who may have deliberately beat to death a mentally ill inmate this past April.

Here’s a clip from the story’s opening:

On the evening of April 21 in Building 21 at the Fishkill Correctional Facility, Samuel Harrell, an inmate with a history of erratic behavior linked to bipolar disorder, packed his bags and announced he was going home, though he still had several years left to serve on his drug sentence.

Not long after, he got into a confrontation with corrections officers, was thrown to the floor and was handcuffed. As many as 20 officers — including members of a group known around the prison as the Beat Up Squad — repeatedly kicked and punched Mr. Harrell, who is black, with some of them shouting racial slurs, according to more than a dozen inmate witnesses. “Like he was a trampoline, they were jumping on him,” said Edwin Pearson, an inmate who watched from a nearby bathroom.

Mr. Harrell was then thrown or dragged down a staircase, according to the inmates’ accounts. One inmate reported seeing him lying on the landing, “bent in an impossible position.”

“His eyes were open,” the inmate wrote, “but they weren’t looking at anything.”

Corrections officers called for an ambulance, but according to medical records, the officers mentioned nothing about a physical encounter. Rather, the records showed, they told the ambulance crew that Mr. Harrell probably had an overdose of K2, a synthetic marijuana.

He was taken to St. Luke’s Cornwall Hospital and at 10:19 p.m. was pronounced dead.

In the four months since, state corrections officials have provided only the barest details about what happened at Fishkill, a medium-security prison in Beacon, N.Y., about 60 miles north of New York City. Citing a continuing investigation by the State Police, officials for weeks had declined to comment on the inmates’ accounts of a beating.

An autopsy report by the Orange County medical examiner, obtained by The New York Times, concluded that Mr. Harrell, 30, had cuts and bruises to the head and extremities and had no illicit drugs in his system, only an antidepressant and tobacco. He died of cardiac arrhythmia, the autopsy report said, “following physical altercation with corrections officers.”


Late last month, US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and US Attorney General Loretta Lynch revealed a pilot program to give federal Pell Grants—college grants for low-income students—to thousands of prisoners, reversing a 22-year ban on giving such grants to inmates.

Meanwhile, in California four community colleges are launching classes inside certain state prisons as part of an 18-month, $2 million pilot program starting this fall.

Michelle Chen, writing for the Nation Magazine, points to a 2013 RAND Corporation study, which reported that participation in prison education, including both academic and vocational programming, was associated with a more than 40 percent reduction in recidivism, resulting in $4 to $5 saved, for each dollar spent on educational programs.

So why the resistance to providing more college opportunities inside the nation’s lock-ups?

Here are some clips from Chen’s story:

The plan to extend Pell Grant access in prisons is described as a “limited pilot program” authorized through a federal financial aid waiver program under the Higher Education Act. Incarcerated adults could apply for grants of up to $5,775 for tuition and related expenses, at college-level programs offered in prison facilities nationwide. Designed to allow for studying long-term effects of education on recidivism, the program moves toward restoring access to Pell Grants for incarcerated people, which Congress removed in the mid-1990s.

College behind bars remains a tough sell to some law-and-order conservatives—hence the charmingly titled counter-legislation, the “Kids Before Cons” Act. Generally, however, the idea of de-carcerating the prison population appeals to an ascendant libertarian streak among Republicans because, in fiscal terms, textbooks and professors yield better returns on investment than weight rooms and laundry duty.


But educational interventions may have more profound social impacts. Attending college classes has been associated with improved social climate and communications in the prison population, and “reduced problems with disciplinary infractions,” according to an analysis by the Institute of Higher Education Policy (IHEP). A study on women incarcerated at New York’s Bedford Hills facility was linked to improved family relationships, by demonstrating to family members a commitment to rehabilitation and turning parents into academic “role models.”

This is not simply about turning inmates into good worker bees. As a formidable prison debate team in New York has shown, postsecondary education enhances critical thinking by compelling incarcerated people to channel their often prodigious street smarts into more sophisticated forms of inquiry and analysis.

Glenn Martin, head of the reform group Just Leadership USA, which helped advocate for the Pell Grant initiative along with other decarceration measures, attended college himself while serving time in a New York prison. Post-release, he was rejected repeatedly for jobs, he recalls, but “what a college degree did for me was [also] to recalibrate my own moral compass and help me better understand why I was facing all those barriers to the labor market, the stigma I was facing.… I was able to analyze my situation in a much much more complex way.”

Posted in LA County Board of Supervisors, LA County Jail, prison, Veterans | No Comments »

New Report: DA Lacey’s Push to Divert Mentally Ill from Jails, LA Child Welfare Check-up, Post-Prop 47 Recommendations, and Gratitude to All Our Veterans

November 11th, 2014 by Taylor Walker


On Wednesday, LA District Attorney Jackie Lacey will present to the Board of Supervisors a report on how the county’s criminal justice system is failing the mentally ill.

The report includes recommendations for each point of contact at which a mentally ill person might be diverted from the justice system and into a treatment setting. These points of contact are law enforcement and emergency services, a person’s first detention and court hearings, jails and courts, and community corrections and community support.

According to Lacey’s report (prepared by Policy Research Associates, Inc.), a higher percentage of law enforcement officers need to be trained to have better interactions with people suffering from mental illness. There is also a shortage of funding for county Psychiatric Mobile Response Teams.

The report points out that police officers can either wait 3-5 hours to drop someone in crisis off at a psychiatric emergency center, or they can book them on a minor charge and get back to work. Drop off centers for law enforcement must be established to make early diversion possible, according to the report.

It should be noted that the report also recommends law enforcement crisis response for veterans.

KPCC’s Frank Stoltze has more on Lacey’s report and what it means. Here’s a clip:

The report describes a system in need of significant changes: In the jails, mentally ill people are receiving inadequate care. At the courthouse, prosecutors, judges and social workers often “lack alignment” when deciding whether its safe to divert someone from criminal prosecution into treatment.

Once someone is released from jail, there’s often no place to go for help. The Department of Mental Health “needs more resources to keep pace with the high volume of referrals and short time frames with which to link individuals to needed services.”

The report identifies five points at which the criminal justice system can divert a mentally ill person into treatment – starting with the moment of police contact. It recommends the Board of Supervisors fund more training for police officers and expand diversion programs. It also recommends creation of a resource center for “criminal justice/mental health technical assistance,” so the justice system can collect and share data on mentally ill offenders.


“We think the report exposes tremendous suffering for mentally ill people,” said Marc-Anthony Johnson of Dignity and Power Now. The report also is further evidence the county should abandon plans to spend $2 billion to replace the aging Men’s Central Jail, he added.

“We think the Board of Supervisors should stop the $2 billion jail plan and move forward with a mental health diversion program that is comprehensive.”

The LA Times’ Cindy Chang reported that in his acceptance speech, Sheriff Jim McDonnell pledged to work with Jackie Lacey on mental health diversion.


Fostering Media Connections has released a 24-page “check-up” report on how LA County is fairing as it works to reform the dysfunctional Department of Children and Family Services. This check-up is the second in a series of quarterly progress reports after a Blue Ribbon Commission on Child Safety presented the Board of Supervisors with 42 recommendations.

The report says, among other recent improvements, $1.23 million has been allocated for boosting Electronic Suspected Child Abuse Reporting System (E-SCARS), an inter-agency database for reporting child-abuse, and DCFS has completed a new risk-assessment model to target and prevent critical child abuse threats.

Fostering Media Connections founder Daniel Heimpel has more on the report over at the Chronicle of Social Change. Here’s a clip:

The BRC is not the first commission or task force created out of tragedy to improve child protection. But, having watched L.A.’s child protection reform process progress, I am hopeful that what is happening across sprawling Los Angeles County will somehow be different. Further, there is the unique possibility that if this process yields real gains, it will serve to enlighten other jurisdictions currently reeling under the pressure of seemingly preventable child deaths.

Today, we at Fostering Media Connections released our second quarterly “Checkup” on the developmental health of Los Angeles County’s child protection reform effort. In the 100-odd days since we last took such a comprehensive look at the reform process there have been some notable gains:

The Board of Supervisors approved $1.23 million to beef up law enforcement’s response to child abuse.

DCFS finished designing a risk-modeling tool to help prevent critical incidents of child abuse and death.

The department took the first step towards accessing a new pot of state funds to increase foster care payments to family members who take in their kin.

The BRC’s “transition team” charged with maintaining the reform effort made headway towards naming a child protection czar to oversee a new Office of Child Protection designed to integrate services to better protect the county’s children.

Such gains are important, not just for Los Angeles, but across the country.


Within mere days following the Nov. 4 passage of California’s Proposition 47, low-level offenders are already being resentenced, and released.

An LA Times editorial says the voters made it undeniably clear how the public feels about the war on drugs and tough-on-crime laws and policies of the previous decade, but that it would have been preferable for the legislature to have adopted 47′s changes.

The editorial says lawmakers entering the state capitol (as well as law enforcement and prosecutors) should take heed of voters’ wishes and begin working on a better justice system. Here’s a clip:

Lawmakers could begin by designing and establishing a sentencing commission. Such a step could at long last provide a buffer between the emotional urgency of high-profile crimes and the knee-jerk legislative response of ever-longer sentences. A commission that carefully weighs sentences against evidence of their effectiveness in reducing crime and recidivism could help stop the state from swinging back and forth, every 30 years or so, between punishment that is too tough and costly and punishment that is too lenient and dangerous.

Sacramento should also reject additional prison spending. Californians want and deserve to be protected from crime, but prisons that are too packed to offer the services that encourage inmates to recognize their mistakes or give them opportunities to change, and laws that make it harder rather than easier for former offenders to reenter society safely and productively, are not the answer. Lawmakers and Gov. Jerry Brown should focus on rehabilitation, reentry programs and alternatives to incarceration now — even before the additional funding from Proposition 47 for such programs kicks in a year from now.

Police and prosecutors, many of whom opposed the ballot measure, have it within their power to undermine it even after its overwhelming passage. Prosecutors could choose to reject the spirit of the measure and “charge up” — for example, to seek felony charges for possession for sale of a controlled substance in a case they might have charged last month as simple possession.

They could — but they should not. Their challenge is to implement the will of the voters in changing their stance toward drug users and petty criminals rather than looking for excuses not to.

Read the rest.


This year, the theme of Cal Humanities’ statewide initiative, California Reads, is “War Comes Home.” More than 340 libraries around the state will host their own programs and activities, including readings and discussions about the featured California Reads book What It Is Like to Go to War, by Marine Corps veteran and Rhodes Scholar Karl Marlantes.

Sebastian Junger (of The Perfect Storm and Restrepo) says Marlantes’ book “not only illuminates war for civilians, but also offers a kind of spiritual guidance to veterans themselves,” and predicts that Marlantes’ writing will save lives.

And the New Yorker suggests that one of the three purposes of the book is to let lawmakers know exactly what they’re asking military men and women sent into war.

(We at WLA urgently recommend you read this book.)

Posted in District Attorney, Jim McDonnell, Mental Illness, Sentencing, Veterans | 1 Comment »

Help for San Diego’s Jailed Vets, Prop 36 Outcomes, and SCOTUS Lets Alabama Continue Controversial “Judicial Override”

November 19th, 2013 by Taylor Walker


San Diego County’s Vista Detention Facility has a separate wing (called the N-Module-3) for veterans who find themselves on the wrong side of the law. The N-Module-3 program “Veterans Moving Forward” offers the incarcerated vets—often wrestling with any combination of PTSD, substance abuse, and other issues—a chance to deal with the the struggles of life after active duty that helped put them behind bars, through daily classes, and by being in the company of other veterans.

The LA Times’ Tony Perry has the story. Here’s a clip:

Thirty-two veterans serving sentences or awaiting trial have volunteered to live in the module separate from the other prisoners and participate in classes meant to increase their chances of making a law-abiding return to civilian life.

“We’re all dedicated to making this work, nobody wants to go back,” said Jeremy Thomas, 22, who served with the Marines in Afghanistan and lost his left hand when a roadside bomb exploded.

Each of the veterans has agreed to take classes Monday through Friday from 7 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. to assist with problems of post-traumatic stress disorder, anger management, substance abuse, parenting and other issues.

“We hope that by putting them together we can rekindle that esprit de corps they had when they were serving their country,” said San Diego County Sheriff Bill Gore, whose department runs the jails. “It’s a great population to work with.”

The program was spurred both by a sense of obligation toward the veterans and also an increased need to reduce recidivism to accommodate the state’s prison realignment program that threatens to overwhelm the capacity of local jails.

“We’ve got to do things differently,” Gore said.

Angela Simoneau, a social worker for the Department of Veterans Affairs in San Diego, said she and others participating in the program will be watching for numbers to support expanding the program to other local jails. “Data is on everyone’s mind,” she said.

And here’s a snip of what’s being done for incarcerated vets in LA County and the California prison system:

The California prison system does not house veterans separately from other prisoners but does encourage formation of veterans-only discussion groups at its 34 institutions, a spokesman said. VA “reentry specialists” regularly meet with prisoners on the verge of being released to tell them of benefits and therapy programs.

In Los Angeles County, where the Sheriff’s Department runs the largest jail system in the country, 291 prisoners are housed in veteran-only dorms where they participate in programs including Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous and classes in art, computers and relationship counseling.

The most recent national data is, unfortunately, almost ten years old (and doesn’t offer county jail statistics): a 2004 DOJ report revealed that one in ten federal and state prisoners had prior military service. Programming for these locked up veterans is a good step toward reducing recidivism in California’s overcrowded facilities and an important tool to help vets successfully return to civilian life.


Since California’s three-strikes reform legislation passage about a year ago, over 1,000 people have been resentenced and subsequently freed.

KQED’s Michael Montgomery kept in touch with three men released under the measure. In this California Report story, Montgomery says Prop 36′s results are generally good so far, but many of the former third-strikers have served so much time, they are not put under county or state supervision, and often miss out on crucial reentry programs.

Here are some clips (but you should also listen to the podcast):

Convicted of stealing two car alarms from a Walgreens store, Richard Brown spent 18 years in prison under California’s notorious Three Strikes law. Then, quite suddenly, he was standing outside the gates of San Quentin earlier this year, a free man.

“They told me to get off the property,” he says. “I asked if there was a phone booth or something. They said no.”

For Robert Watts, who served 13 years for receiving stolen property, getting out of prison involved an emotional legal tangle with local prosecutors who insisted he was an unredeemed career criminal and should remain behind bars.

“It was unpleasant,” he says. “But at least it’s over.”

For both men, freedom came as the result of Proposition 36, the ballot initiative approved last year by voters in every county in California.

The measure changed the 1994 law that had allowed judges to impose life sentences for low-level felonies such as petty theft and drug possession. The new law focuses on serious and violent crimes. It’s also retroactive, allowing current inmates whose third strike was non-violent and non-serious to petition the courts for resentencing and possible release.

Opponents of the measure have argued that the original Three Strikes law worked well and contributed to a dramatic fall in violent crime over the past two decades. Granting some inmates early release, they said, would lead to a spike in crime…

But so far, Prop. 36 does not appear to be endangering public safety, according to a recent report by Stanford Law School and the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund.

Citing state data, the report concluded that of the more than 1,000 inmates released from prison under the measure, fewer than 2 percent have been charged with new crimes. By comparison, the average recidivism rate over a similar time period for non-Prop. 36 inmates is 16 percent.


Several former three strikers say their challenge has been coping with life on the streets without the structure of prison and support normally provided to newly released felons.

Most three strikers who qualify for release have served so much extra time they’re not placed on parole or probation. Often that means that don’t have access to substance abuse, mental health and other re-entry programs as well as housing.

“They give you $200 and kick you out, and they don’t give you any type of papers to indicate that you can go down to this program or (that) program,” said Brown. He considers himself lucky to have a job, home and support network.

“For many people coming out, it’s a nightmare,” he said.


On Monday, the US Supreme Court refused to hear the case of an Alabama man who was sentenced to life in prison by a jury, only to have it overridden by the trial judge who then sentenced him to death. (Alabama is one of only three states that allows judges to reverse a jury’s decision in death penalty cases.)

Only Justices Sonia Sotomayor and Stephen Breyer dissented.

The Atlantic’s Andrew Cohen says the court should have heard the case (Woodward v. Alabama) and ceased the state’s use of “judicial override.” Here are some clips:

If (as Alabama has done) you give judges the power to override jury verdicts in capital cases, and if (as Alabama also has done) you then make those judges accountable to public opinion by having judicial campaigns and elections, you are going to end up (as they have in Alabama) with judges who disproportionately feel it is in their self-interest to sentence people to death even when a jury has recommended a sentence of life.

Citing the trenchant work done in this area by Bryan Stevenson and the Equal Justice Initiative, Justice Sotomayor wrote that such a scenario must be unconstitutional…

One Alabama judge, who has overridden jury verdicts to impose the death penalty on six occasions, campaigned by running several advertisements voicing his support for capital punishment. One of these ads boasted that he had “‘presided over more than 9,000 cases, includ­ing some of the most heinous murder trials in our history,’” and expressly named some of the defendants whom he had sentenced to death, in at least one case over a jury’s contrary judgment…

By permitting a single trial judge’s view to displace that of a jury representing a cross-section of the community, Alabama’s sentencing scheme has led to curious and potentially arbitrary outcomes. For example, Alabama judges frequently override jury life-without-parole verdicts even in cases where the jury was unanimous in that ver­dict.In many cases, judges have done so without offering a meaningful explanation for the decision to disregard the jury’s verdict. In sentencing a defendant with an IQ of 65, for example, one judge concluded that “‘[t]he sociological literature suggests Gypsies intentionally test low on standard IQ tests.’”

Another judge, who was facing reelection at the time he sentenced a 19-year-old defend­ant, refused to consider certain mitigating circumstances found by the jury, which had voted to recommend a life­ without-parole sentence. He explained his sensitivity to public perception as follows: “‘If I had not imposed the death sentence I would have sentenced three black people to death and no white people.” (citations omitted by me).

(There’s more. Read on…)

Photo taken from the San Diego Sheriff’s website.

Posted in Death Penalty, PTSD, Reentry, Sentencing, Supreme Court, Veterans | 2 Comments »

Central CA School Replaces Zero-Tolerance With Restorative Justice…VA Group Aids Homeless Female Vets…Baca & Yor Health…and More

October 1st, 2013 by Taylor Walker


In her blog, ACEs Too High, journalist/child advocate, Jane Stevens brings to our attention a little high school in Le Grand (a rural town in Central California) that has eradicated zero-tolerance school discipline and replaced it with restorative justice practices to great success. The program, funded by the California Endowment, began as a group of twelve seniors, self-titled the “Restorative Justice League” acting as peer-mediators. Now, in it’s third year, the program has expanded and become a meaningful example for other California schools. Last year, suspensions were down 70% from two years prior, and expulsions dropped from six to just one.

Here are some clips from Stevens’ story:

At Le Grand High School, all 487 students are given a tablet computer for the year. They’re free to use cell phones (appropriately). One-third of the students participate in after-school programs, including martial arts and cooking. Where there used to be regular gang brawls, only two fights have occurred over the last two years. Half of last year’s graduates attend college.

The school, which also draws students from the nearby communities of Planada and Plainsburg, isn’t wealthy. In fact, the high school is 100% “free and reduced” — education-speak for the fact that students come from farm families (workers and owners) that live just above, at, or below poverty level. But [Principal Javier] Martinez is a grant-writing machine. Over the last five years, he’s brought nearly $2 million to the school to support technology and programs for the students and their parents, including a restorative justice program.

At the core of this restorative justice program is the Restorative Justice League. Starting off as a dozen students flailing uncomfortably with their mission, they evolved into a tight-knit band that jumped in to help resolve a major school crisis. In doing so, they became the tipping point in the school’s decision to jettison its zero tolerance policy, and replace it with a supportive approach to school discipline.


They trained to become peer mediators by role-playing made-up conflicts, and by discussing the confrontations they saw at school and developing strategies to intervene appropriately. Then Griggs gave them assignments, such as talking with a student they had never spoken to. Each took a different approach. For example, Briana Biagi talked with a fellow student at a college entrance exam, while Yuhuen Ceja texted to as many of the students as she could: “Who wants to be my friend?” “That got a lot of people talking to me,” she said.


By June, the Restorative Justice League students have trained 50 juniors, sophomores and freshman to be mentors for the 2013-2014 school year’s incoming freshmen. They hosted a restorative justice conference for students from surrounding school districts. And, they have seven interventions under their belts.

Their first intervention was for a fellow senior, a gang member who got into a fight and broke his hand. At an intervention panel, the Restorative Justice League members listen to students who have committed an offense that would normally result in suspension or expulsion, offer ideas for restitution, and, if the students agree, follow up to make sure they carry through. In the case of this gang member, they asked him to write a formal apology, to clean up after all school dances, and to become involved in something positive after school. The process uncorked his creativity and changed his life. He founded the Modeling Club – a fashion club that attracted 20 student members who learned how to do photography and magazine shoots, and put on modeling events for the school. He’s now attending Merced College.

(The above demonstration video was made by the student members of the Restorative Justice League for their fellow students.)


A Los Angeles VA outreach team led by chief of community care, Michelle Wilde, has prioritized finding and aiding LA’s homeless female veterans. The team combs through areas with dense homeless populations and reaches out to women whom, Wilde says, often don’t seek help because they don’t fit the “stereotype of a man coming back from war.” Through HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH), women are provided housing vouchers and helped to find homes, support, and treatment when needed.

LA Daily News’ Susan Abram has the story. Here’s a clip:

“Many women, when we initially outreach to them, may not even identify themselves as veterans,” said Michelle Wilde, chief of community care at the VA Greater Los Angeles Healthcare System.

“They still think of that stereotype of a man coming back from war,” Wilde added.

Wilde’s department was the first in the nation to organize an outreach team specifically to find and help homeless women veterans, whether they served tours overseas or stayed stateside, in times of war or in peace.

The team formed right on time, especially in Los Angeles County, when the number of homeless women veterans rose 51 percent from 2009 to 2011, according to the Los Angeles Homeless Services Authority. That meant there were nearly 1,000 homeless women veterans living in cars, converted garages, and elsewhere across the region.


With some federal funds from the Obama administration’s “Opening Doors” initiative, the HUD-Veterans Affairs Supportive Housing (HUD-VASH) Program has given projects like Wilde’s a boost in finding housing and assistance to homeless veterans.


Like men, women veterans also may suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, some because of sexual assault. They may return home and find that family support has vanished. Or they may have returned to jobs that no exist.

But the outreach team’s efforts have helped. Of the 3,000 homeless veterans placed in homes, 10 percent were women. And the number of homeless veterans in Los Angeles County also has shown an overall drop, from 8,131 in 2011 to 6,248 this year according to the latest figures. Among women, the stats have fallen from 909 in 2011, to 352 this year.


ABC7 aired a segment Monday night on Sheriff Lee Baca’s involvement as a pitchman for the company Yor Health. (Which we previewed here.)

Here’s a clip from the segment:

“Hi, I’m Lee Baca and I’m the Sheriff of Los Angeles County and I’m going to live to be 100 years old and beyond,” Baca says in a video. “You still need some nutritional support.”

Does this look like a commercial to you? The pitchman might make you do a double-take.

“The advice I give my friends who are trying to take full control of their body is to take the YOR Health products, sustain their daily nutritional needs and operate on less than 2,500 calories a day,” Baca says in the video.

“To me, this is 100 percent unethical,” says Dr. Maki Haberfeld of the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

ABC7 noted that Baca has been a special guest speaker at YOR Health’s annual conferences every year since 2010, and appears in a YOR Health magazine.

Baca also stated at a 2010 Yor Health conference, “We are selling these products in the sheriff’s department emporium for the deputies,” Baca said at a 2010 conference.

So what, if anything, did the sheriff get in return?

ABC7 found that Yor Health gave Sheriff Baca a $1000 campaign donation in 2010, and a $527 reimbursement for travel expenses.

Jessica Levinson, a professor at Loyola Law School, had this to say about whether the endorsement violates LA County’s conflict of interest laws:

“I’m not convinced that he’s kicked over that threshold, but when we look at the purpose of the conflict of interest statutes and the spirit of the law, then I think it’s perfectly fair to ask questions.”

ABC7 shared some complaints that had been made to the FTC:

“Yor Health is really a pyramid scheme.”

“It’s focused more on recruiting others than selling the actual product.”

“It brainwashes and manipulates people.”

…and “uses cult-like techniques to get people to join their company.”

The FTC wouldn’t disclose to ABC what was being done about the allegations, if anything.

When ABC7 did the math, they found that over a third of representatives made no money, and half of all representatives lose money.

ABC7 pointed out that today, after three years, the Yor Health videos featuring Sheriff Baca were made private and the sheriff’s photo was removed from the company’s website.

Sheriff’s spokesman Steve Whitmore said that Sheriff Baca would now be separating himself from Yor Health, and that Baca was under the impression that the videos he shot were only for use within the company.

(CBS2 followed ABC7′s lead and also did a story on Baca’s Yor Health connection, which you can find here.)

Posted in Homelessness, Restorative Justice, Sheriff Lee Baca, Veterans, women's issues, Zero Tolerance and School Discipline | 16 Comments »

Happy Independence Day!

July 4th, 2013 by Celeste Fremon

The Boss at Fenway Park on August 15, 2012, singing with with Ken Casey of the glorious American Celtic punk band, the Dropkick Murphys

Barring breaking news, we at WitnessLA are taking the four-day weekend off. We have a pile of stories for next week, so we’ll see you bright and early Monday morning.

In the meantime, may each of you and your families have a wonderful 4th of July weekend in this complicated but achingly beautiful country of ours.

NOTE: If you’d like to do something practical on this 4th of July four-day weekend, by helping returning veterals, a good bet for donations is the Intrepid Fallen Heros’ Fund, which aids American service people who have come home with traumatic brain injuries and/or PTSD. It is important to know that the IFHF is one of only two charities for veterans that got an A+ rating by the American Institute of Philanthropy’s Charity Watch, so you can be assured that most all of what you give will go into programing for veterans (rather than into fundraising or into the pockets of administrators).

Posted in Life in general, Veterans | No Comments »

The Invisible War: Rape in the Military – by Matthew Fleischer

June 22nd, 2012 by Celeste Fremon


A San Diego Navy vet speaks out in a deeply important and shattering new film

by Matthew Fleischer

“When you get raped in civilian life, you go to a court that’s independent and unbiased to seek justice and recourse. When you get raped in the military, your only recourse is to go to your commander, who knows you and likely knows your rapist.”
–Amy Ziering, producer, “The Invisible War”

Navy veteran Allison Gill says she was violated three times during her military service in the early aughts: once when she was raped by a fellow service member, once when she tried to report the crime and was told to go away, and a third time when she tried to get the Veterans Benefits Administration to acknowledge her sexual assault-based PTSD and authorize treatment—only to denied and stonewalled for three years and counting.

“To go to countless therapy sessions and truly get to the place where you believe that this is not your fault, and then to be denied and denied and denied,” she tells WitnessLA, “it sets you back in your therapy. That’s a devastating thing for a survivor, to tell them ‘we don’t believe you.’”

Gill is one of the dozens of military victims of sexual assault featured in the new documentary The Invisible War, which opens nationwide Friday. The film offers an astounding portrait of military veterans living with the trauma of sexual assault—perpetrated by their brothers in arms. This epidemic of rape in the military is seemingly impossibly widespread. Since World War 2, nearly 500,000 military men and women have reported being raped during their service. 3,000 military on military rapes were reported in 2011 alone—and authorities think the actual number could be six times higher.

Almost worse than the act itself is the treatment these victims receive from military authorities when they attempt to report these crimes. I ran into Gill at a recent screening of The Invisible War at the Los Angeles Film Festival, and we spoke about the film and about her ordeal. “When I went to report my sexual assault to military police, I was told I was silly,” Gill remembers. “They said I’d been drinking, I’d put myself in a bad situation and I should ‘suck it up.’ They threatened that if I filed a report and it was found to be false, I could be dishonorably discharged. They talked me out of it.”

According to the film, 80 percent of military rape victims do the exact same thing—stay quiet.

“The thing that hits me like a ton of bricks was the barrage of women in the film who said the exact same thing as I did,” says Gill. “I’ve never met anyone that went through what I went through. It blew me away that everyone’s story is the same.”

That story too often includes Gill’s problem of getting the Veterans Benefits Administration to acknowledge she suffers from sexual assault-induced PTSD from her attack. She first filed her claim 2009, was denied, she appealed, was denied again, and is still waiting for the results of her second appeal three years later.

Gill happens to be graded 30 percent disabled by the VBA, based on other injuries she suffered during her service, which entitles her to free medical care at the VA. But because the VBA refuses to acknowledge that sexual assault is the cause of her PTSD, she has to pay for any meds her therapist prescribes for treatment out of pocket.

It could be much worse. Military sexual assault survivors who have their claims denied, are not graded 30 percent disabled or more, or do not meet the minimum service threshholds, do not receive free care from the VA at all. They are subject to co-pays and other fees for PTSD treatment and other basic medical care.

Gill is very clear in distinguishing between the difficulties she’s had with the Veterans Benefits Association and the actual VA hospital system. Despite her ordeal, after getting out of the Navy, she wound up working for the VA in San Diego, a job that she loves.

“I’m a pretty patriotic person,” she says. “I wanted to serve my government in some capacity. I wanted to give back something. It made sense to me to give back to my country and serve veterans at the same time.”

Gill has found one unusual form of therapy to heal the mental wounds the VBA declines to acknowledge: standup comedy. The local press in her adopted hometown of San Diego has dubbed Gill the city’s “funniest woman.” (Incidentally, if you’re too busy to drive south to check out her act, she’s going to be at the Hollywood Improv on Friday August 10th.)

“The way I cope is I fill my life up with stuff to do, so I don’t have time to sit and think,” she says. “After my service I went back to school to get my master’s degree. I go to yoga 6 times a week. I’m always doing something, or on my way back from doing something. Some people medicate with drugs or alcohol. I medicate with having shit to do.”

Posted in Veterans, War, women's issues | 17 Comments »


June 21st, 2012 by Celeste Fremon


Nearly one in four 18- to 24-year-old veterans were out of work in May, according to Bureau of Labor Statistics, as So Cal service providers scramble for funds to help

by Matthew Fleischer

This past Tuesday, U.S. Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis announced that her department was awarding 64 grants, totaling $15 million dollars, to help provide job training to homeless veterans across America, under the banner of the Homeless Veterans Reintegration Program. “No veteran should have to go to sleep in their car or under a bridge,” she said to a group reporters on Tuesday morning, estimating that these grants would help 8,600 homeless veterans find work.

Seven providers in LA, Orange and San Diego Counties were given grants ranging from $277,796 to $300,000. The news was met with a huge sigh of relief from Southland HVRP service providers, who were sweating out the grant process, given the current political climate of austerity fetishism.

“The English call it ‘squeaky-bum time,’” Karl Calhoun of Volunteers of America, Los Angeles says of the hyper-tense moments before his organization received an official notice of renewal on its previous three-year $300,000 grant “We’ve been renewed a few times, but you can’t take these things for granted. Not in this economic climate.”

VoALA gives job training and placement assistance to 150-200 homeless veterans and veterans under “imminent threat of homelessness” annually. Those under “imminent threat” weren’t always eligible for HVRP services, but Calhoun tells me the feds have come around in recognizing the necessity. “It’s absurd to wait until a guy is on the street to provide him services.”

Calhoun cites the recent example of a VoALA client who lost a painting job after his union contract expired. The vet looked for work for months with no success, and was about to be evicted from his apartment when he finally came to VoALA looking for job placement help. VoALA was able to find him work painting massive storage drums at an oil refinery—dangerous work perfectly fitted for the adrenaline-accustomed veteran.

“He was close to being on the street. Now he makes $37 an hour,” says Calhoun. “Suffice it to say, he can pay his rent.”

Success stories like this can be difficult to come by. While the majority of military vets are diligent, hard-working, and highly skilled, their training frequently doesn’t do them much good in civilian life.

“They have discipline that far exceeds what civilians bring to the table,” says Calhoun. “But the skills they’ve learned often don’t translate to the commercial world. Knowing how to fix a tank, for instance, under severe time restraints in a hostile environment, is impressive, but not necessarily useful to potential employers when vets are applying for jobs back home.”

That gap between military training and commercial usefulness is exactly where these grants are aimed. The number of vets who need help in bridging that gap it daunting, particularly in the Southland.

According to statistics from the California Department of Veterans Affairs, 8.7 percent of all veterans in the United States live in California, with the vast majority–nearly a million–in the Southern California. As of 2010 there were 346,000 veterans living in Los Angeles County and another 234,000 living in San Diego County alone, numbers that will increase as American service people continue to come home from Iraq and Afghanistan.

There’s no exact count for the number of homeless vets in the region, but the common estimate is that more than 8,000 Los Angeles veterans are homeless. Thousands more are at-risk, due to the effects of PTSD, traumatic brain injuries, as well as the current economic malaise that has swept over the country for the past four years.

“The recovery is sputtering at best,” says Calhoun. “I think employers are willing to hire, but they’re gun-shy. They’re waiting to see what happens with the election and the economy.”

But that doesn’t mean veterans are completely out of options.

“We’ve steered plenty of our clients towards the G.I. Bill,” says Calhoun. “They were living on the street. Once they learn how to access the provisions of the bill, they get the equivalent of around $15 an hour to complete their studies.”

A little bit of guidance can go a long way.

Photo by George Frey/Getty Images.

Posted in Homelessness, Veterans | 3 Comments »