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After a conviction, help for incarcerated veterans

Veterans AffairsTheftU.S. Department of Veterans AffairsIraq

Christian Rojas has a plan.

The Iraq War veteran wants to get his paralegal certificate. Then, he figures, he'll go into business for himself, helping people write their wills and file motions in court. He dreams of earning a law degree eventually and practicing law.

First, though, he has to get out of prison.

Rojas, 33, is at Eastern Correctional Institution in Westover in Somerset County, where he is serving seven years for holding up a couple of fast-food restaurants in Severn in 2011.

The good news for Rojas: Jim Haskell is ready to help.

Haskell is a clinical social worker in Baltimore with the Department of Veterans Affairs, which has piloted a program in Maryland that allows the agency to identify more veterans in prison. That program — which matches VA records with prison records, enabling the VA to locate twice as many former service members — is now expanding nationwide.

"Because so many people with mental health conditions and substance abuse conditions are winding up in the judicial system, it's really incumbent upon us to reach out to them and make sure that they're getting the proper services that they need," Haskell said. "Basically, that's what we do, is connect veterans to those services."

As part of the program, Haskell travels to prisons throughout the state to meet with incarcerated former service members. He assesses the housing, treatment and job training they will need when they are released, connects them with those services, and reports to courts, parole boards and probation officers.

Many of the veterans Haskell works with suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder, substance abuse, homelessness or other problems. The VA services that he can offer can lead a judge to send a veteran to treatment instead of prison, can persuade a parole board to release a veteran, or set up a veteran who has served time for a chance at success on the outside.

As the military winds down after more than a decade of war, and the Pentagon looks to reduce the number of service members on active duty, the VA is stepping up its services for incarcerated veterans.

The agency estimates that about 8 percent of the U.S. prison population has served in the military. Among the roughly 22,000 inmates in Maryland's state prison system, that works out to more than 1,700 incarcerated veterans. Since 2007, the VA has sent social workers and other specialists into county, state and federal prisons to develop treatment plans for former service members as they prepare to re-enter society.

The VA is studying the impact of the work of Haskell and his counterparts in other states on the veterans they are trying to serve. It is not clear how many stay off drugs, off the streets and out of trouble, or whether they fare any better than nonveteran prisoners who are ineligible for VA services.

But Haskell believes he's having a positive effect.

"When I first started going to Baltimore Central Booking, it didn't seem like I had any trouble finding veterans," he said. "But as time has gone on, it seems like it's been getting more difficult. I suspect we are making a difference."

Dennis P. Ferrell, the state prison system's assistant director for transition services, called the work of the Haskell and the VA "very helpful to us."

"We can never provide all the services that individuals need," he said.

State prison officials have promoted programs for veterans. Spokesman Mark Vernarelli said Maryland's is the first state prison system to have incarcerated former service members training service dogs for wounded veterans, to have them cleaning state veterans cemeteries and to have them recording their stories for the Library of Congress' Veterans History Project.

Veterans groups in several prisons raise money for veterans charities. The group at Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown holds what state officials believe is the only inside-the-wire POW-MIA Remembrance Day ceremony in the country. State Veterans Affairs Secretary Ed Chow spoke at the ceremony in September, which was held at the veterans' memorial in the middle of the prison compound.

One of the veterans Haskell first met at Central Booking was Williams Ames.

The Baltimore native, a former nuclear missile mechanic with the Air Force, said the anxiety he has suffered since he worked in the missile silos at Ellsworth Air Force Base in South Dakota in the early 1970s drove him to abuse cocaine and heroin.

His arrest on drug charges in February 2011 was the latest in a string that stretched back years. But for the first time, Haskell was at Central Booking to greet him.

"Just hearing somebody from the VA, I was like, 'Damn, I'm glad now,'" remembered Ames, now 61. "I figured this was maybe an opportunity to get my life back in order."

Haskell administered a psychosocial evaluation and shared the results and his recommendations for treatment with the court. When Ames was released in 2012, Haskell set him up with a veterans re-entry group at the Maryland VA Medical Center in Baltimore and a bed at Baltimore Station, a residential treatment facility for veterans.

Sharon Cole, supervising attorney with the Office of the Public Defender in Baltimore, said veterans' "entanglement in the criminal justice system" is often "just a manifestation of issues" such as substance abuse, homelessness and PTSD.

Haskell, she said, "helps provide for an effective intervention. Obviously, jail is an ineffective intervention."

Ames now works at Baltimore Station's Code Blue shelter program. When his stay there ends this year, he wants to get his own place and find work as a cook.

"The re-entry program gave me a chance," he said. "I'm 61. I want to enjoy what I've got left."

Rojas hopes to follow a similar path. The New York native enlisted in the Army in 2000 and served 10 years, rising to staff sergeant.

His career included a deployment to Iraq in 2006 with the 1st Calvary. There he served at Camp Taji, where insurgents rained down rockets, rocket-propelled grenades and mortar fire daily.

Four years later, Rojas screened positive for PTSD and was discharged. He came to Maryland to be near a brother in the Air Force and settled in Severn.

When Rojas went out, he said, he suffered anxiety attacks. So he stayed in.

"Pretty soon, avoiding interaction became no interaction," he said. "To the point where all I did was sit around and drink myself silly and pop pills."

He said he cannot explain his actions of Feb. 2, 2011.

"I don't know why, I really don't remember too well, but I grabbed my 9 mm and just went and pulled off two holdups," he said. "There was no planning, there was no type of strategy. I was just really out of character, out of mind. The police caught up to me and I got caught, and then here I am."

Rojas had robbed a KFC and a Quiznos, both within a mile of his apartment. He pleaded guilty to armed robbery and use of a handgun in the commission of a felony, and was sentenced to 12 years in prison, with all but seven suspended. It was, he said, the first time he had ever been in serious trouble.

"In a blink of an eye, everything can change," he says. "I felt like I was living in a movie."

In the prison system — first at Roxbury Correctional Institution in Hagerstown, and now, as he nears release, at the annex to Eastern — Rojas has received medication and treatment for his PTSD.

Rojas hopes to appear before the parole board before the end of the year. When he is released, he's due to enter a residential treatment program.

Haskell has given Rojas the VA's guidebook for incarcerated veterans, with its listing of resources for clothing, education, job training, housing and health care.

"I sing that guy's praises," said Rojas, who could be released as soon as May 2015. "He serves as a buffer for veterans reintegrating into society."

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

twitter.com/matthewhaybrown

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