Incarcerated Veterans

In the years following the Vietnam War, the proportion of veterans in jail or prison was even greater than the proportion of veterans among the U.S. adult population. In 1978, veterans made up 19 percent of the adult population but 24 percent of prisoners and 25 percent of jail inmates. Fortunately, that number has decreased significantly. In 2011 and 2012, veterans made up 9 percent of the general population, while also making up 8 percent of the prison population and 7 percent of jail inmates. While this is certainly a sign of progress, there is still much room for improvement.

For many veterans, the benefits that they receive from the VA are more than just compensation for their service; these benefits are their only means of survival. But what happens when a veteran becomes incarcerated? While incarceration does not automatically eliminate a Veteran’s ability to receive benefits, the cause of incarceration, as well as the length of incarceration, may affect the continued receipt of benefits. For information on VA benefits for incarcerated veterans, please visit

The impact incarceration has on veterans goes well beyond the loss or reduction of VA benefits. For veterans, many of whom are suffering from PTSD, the hostile and often violent life behind bars is not an environment in which we, as a society, can rationally expect veterans to recover from their mental wounds. While such a concept may seem obvious, veterans continue to make up a significant portion of our prison population. In light of the ever-increasing research on PTSD and its treatment, it may be time to reconsider the traditional forms of punishment for veterans.


“Can a Veteran Receive VA Benefits While in Prison?” U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (2015)

This fact sheet, released by the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), covers how incarceration will impact a veteran’s receipt of benefits, including the right of apportionment to spouses or children who also rely on the benefits. Read the full document.

“Incarceration May Reduce or Suspend Eligibility for VBA Benefits or VHA Healthcare”

This website was designed to assist attorneys who are representing veterans in criminal court. This resource provides a more detailed description of effect incarceration has on VA benefits. Read the full document.

Veterans Re-Entry Search Services (VRSS), U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs

This website is only available to correctional and criminal justice system entities. VRSS allows authorized users to identify inmates and/or defendants who have served in the U.S. military. One the process of identification has been completed, authorized users will be able to access a list of the booking numbers and/or prison identifications numbers of individuals with military service record. Access VRSS.

“Veterans in Prison and Jail, 2011-12” by Jennifer Bronson, E. Ann Carson, Margaret Noonan, and Marcus Berzofsky, RTI International (2015)

Abstract: Presents counts and rates of veterans in state and federal prison and local jail in 2011 and 2012. This report describes incarcerated veterans by demographic characteristics, military characteristics, and disability and mental health status. It describes current offense, sentencing, and criminal history characteristics by veteran status. It also examines combat experience associated with lifetime mental health disorders among incarcerated veterans. Findings are based on data from the National Inmate Survey, conducted between February 2011 and May 2012. Data from previous BJS surveys of inmates in prison and jail are used to establish historical trends regarding incarcerated veterans. Read the full report.

“Behind Bars, Vets With PTSD Face A New War Zone, With Little Support” All Things Considered (2015)

This article and audio report chronicles the story of David Carlson, a veteran of the Iraq War and, at the time that this report was recorded, a prisoner incarcerated in Wisconsin. This story covers how Carlson’s time is prison is similar to his experience in Iraq—as he often employs the same tactics for survival, including staying “hyper vigilant.” Listen to the full report.