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Military Law

Jun. 1, 2023

Incarcerated veterans gathered into HUBs

Veteran’s failed suicide led to monumental changes in California’s prisons for incarcerated veterans.

4th Appellate District, Division 3

Eileen C. Moore

Associate Justice, California Courts of Appeal

Suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder, a highly decorated Marine veteran turned into a paid sniper who shot a man driving on the freeway. After he was convicted of attempted murder and sent to San Quentin prison, Ron Self mounted himself atop the toilet in his cell with a rope fashioned from sheets around his neck and stepped off. At some point, the rope broke. About 90 minutes later, he woke up on the cold cell floor.

Thereafter, Self thought to himself: “What we need is a program for veterans that goes deeper than any program in the prison system as far as self-help.” So he created one. That’s how Veterans Healing Veterans From the Inside Out, VHV, was born in 2012. It is part of the Veterans Transition Center, VTC.

Self’s epiphany after his failed suicide has resulted in a program to house incarcerated veterans in HUBs throughout the state. He was released on parole to Monterey in 2017. Presently veterans who volunteer and qualify for the HUB are being sent to Soledad prison in Monterey County. So far, one entire prison yard is filled with veterans, the first of its kind in the nation. A second yard is in the process of being filled. Soon, they will also be congregated in two yet-to-be-selected prisons in Northern and Southern California.

VHV/VTC is located in the old Fort Ord. There are 191 available beds in the barracks the Army abandoned. The former military hospital has been transformed into a Department of Veterans Affairs, VA, clinic. That part of Fort Ord is now known as Light Fighter Village, after the Light Fighters of the 7th Infantry Division. The division was first activated during World War I and was based at Fort Ord for most of its history. They were called Light Fighters because they were designed to move fast.

Among the items left behind by the Army are old World War I and World War II uniforms, helmets, model-sized tanks and aircraft, various pieces of art and old maps. In other words, Light Fighter Village, where the inmates transition upon release from prison, looks very much like a military base.

The key to the success of the program involves intense therapy for the veterans while they are still incarcerated, which continues when they are released into transition housing at Light Fighter Village. The VHV/VTC project has had almost 300 inmates transition through the program thus far. To date, there has been zero recidivism, even for those required to register as sex offenders.

Circumstances from all different directions coalesced with Self’s idea to form veterans’ HUBs in California prisons, available to most of the almost 7,000 incarcerated veterans in California. This article will discuss what preceded the HUB and how the HUB operates.

Veterans at Soledad before the creation of a veterans’ HUB

It just so happens that I had some interaction with some of the veterans incarcerated at Soledad prison prior to Self ‘s being paroled to Monterey. In 2010, I authored an article about veterans courts in California for VVA – The Veteran, the official publication of Vietnam Veterans of America. Soon afterward, I began receiving letters from incarcerated Vietnam vets throughout California, mostly lifers. After receiving permission from the warden, Marion Spearman, in 2014, the veterans at Soledad invited me to be the guest speaker at their Memorial Day event.

Before my speech, Warden Spearman showed me around a little section of the prison where the veterans worked. The warden had given veterans a few offices with desks, a copy machine, a fax machine and a telephone. The Soledad veterans communicated with other incarcerated veterans throughout the state. They answered questions, gave advice and helped veterans fill out forms and prepare for parole hearings.

The Memorial Day event was profoundly sad. During the ceremony, a group of veterans marched the Colors down the center of the gym. Half the vets had their hands on their hearts and the other half assumed a salute to our flag. I saw tears in the eyes of more than one. I realized that, despite their criminal activities, those incarcerated veterans felt emotionally invested in each other and loved and respected their country.

Prison officials must have had the same realizations. In the HUB at Soledad, veterans perform the Colors ceremony every morning and evening.

Veterans Treatment Courts

Meanwhile, beginning in late 2008, California was launching one Veterans Treatment Court after another. We now have 48 VTCs. From those VTCs, many lessons have been learned about veterans who commit crimes.

Veterans feel comfortable among other veterans. There seems to be a shared battle buddy mentality. During my nine years volunteering as a mentor in California’s first VTC, I saw first-hand how veterans help other veterans. When a defendant veteran showed success, the others in the courtroom applauded and back slapped. When a defendant veteran was sent for an overnighter in jail or otherwise sanctioned by the court, the other defendant veterans also gave encouragement, saying such things as “it’ll be better next time” or “don’t give up” or “you can do it.” Similar dynamics occurred among the veteran defendants and the veteran mentors. The mentors served as positive examples of how veterans can successfully transition back into the civilian world. They also provided the veteran defendants with encouragement and sound advice. Veterans in the VTCs form an esprit de corps mentality of all for one and one for all.

California’s VTCs served as a lesson for criminal justice professionals. They saw how when veterans gathered together in a criminal justice setting, they had a positive effect of pride, fellowship and common loyalty. Since it worked in courts, it could work in prison HUBs as well.

Assembly Bill 178

The Budget Act of 2022 made appropriations for the Soledad HUB. It states: “Of the funds appropriated in this item, $4,100,000 is provided for Veterans Healing Veterans, a division of the Veterans Transition Center, to support the Veterans Hub located in the Correctional Training Facility to support operations, including, but not limited to, staffing, equipment, training materials and supplies, travel expenses, and programming space. These funds shall be available for encumbrance or expenditure until June 30, 2025, and any unencumbered funds within this appropriation shall revert to the General Fund as of that date. Veterans Healing Veterans shall submit a report to the Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation that includes how the resources were spent, how many people were served, and other relevant quantitative and qualitative information on the impact of their program on program participants by December 1, 2025. This report shall also be submitted to the Legislature and the Legislative Analyst’s Office.”

The Soledad HUB is using Narration Therapy

VHV veterans and others use narration therapy in the Soledad veterans’ yards. The concept of narration therapy began during the 1980s. The idea behind it is to have the individuals see themselves as making a mistake, rather than seeing themselves as bad, per se.

The first thing VHV veterans do is to have the incarcerated veterans make their own rules for how the sessions are conducted, thus thwarting anti-authority attitudes. Accordingly, when the inmates make the rules, they have to own them.

Because almost all of the veteran inmates experienced childhood trauma, the classes tend to be emotionally taxing on them. Each inmate must deliver reports about themselves. They first write out the reports and then read them aloud to the others.

Interestingly, to pass from one phase to another in Veterans Treatment Courts, the veteran defendants do something very similar. There is a requirement for written essays followed by reading them out loud in open court.

The VA has agreed to go to the HUBs for a purpose other than treatment

Ordinarily, the Department of Veterans Affairs does not provide services to incarcerated veterans. No treatment. Nothing.

The reason is that in 1999, when this country was between major wars, the VA passed a regulation, 38 C.F.R. § 17.38 (c)(5), that states it will not provide “hospital and outpatient care for a veteran who is either a patient or inmate in an institution of another government agency if that agency has a duty to give the care or services.”

And of course, incarcerated veterans are not able to leave prison to go to scheduled evaluations and appointments. According to Self, the biggest challenge for incarcerated veterans is the lack of access to the VA to make compensation and pension claims. Without that access, they cannot take care of their families or adequately prepare for release.

Under the HUB program, these barriers have been removed. The VA has agreed to be at Soledad five days a week to assist incarcerated veterans with their claims. The VA will assist prison staff members who are veterans make their claims as well.

The Soledad HUB prepares veterans for future employment

Post 9/11 veterans face an employment landscape that other generations of veterans did not. A major reason for this problem is the difficulty veterans face in obtaining civilian certifications for military skills. It’s not that they lack the skills, it’s that the civilian world doesn’t recognize them. Thus, our current veterans often transition into the civilian world without the ability to find jobs for which they are eminently qualified.

Since at least 1990 and up to the present, Congress has been concerned with the effect of non-transferability of combat experience and military skills to the civilian sector. Each year when the National Defense Act is enacted, there is something in the Act about preparing military members to successfully transition back into the civilian world. Thus far, Congress has not been able to adequately address the problem.

A Homeland & National Security Law Review article discusses the challenges returning veterans face in the job market. It quotes from the Congressional Record: “This Nation spends $140 billion training our veterans. These are our best and brightest and most dedicated. When they come back home ... there are barriers to employment that we should not be putting up in front of them .... If they’ve saved their colleagues on the battlefield and passed the credentialing to be a medic, why can’t they ride in an ambulance at the Mayo Clinic in my district?”

Soledad’s HUB is addressing this problem head-on, making sure its veterans will not face the same problem when they leave prison that they faced when they transitioned out of the military. The HUB is preparing the veterans to enter into the free world with marketable skills. It has vocational training opportunities, including welding, plumbing, masonry, auto mechanics and carpentry. Certification in each field is available.


Veterans understand what veterans need. Perhaps that’s why Ron Self’s post-suicide-attempt idea has been so successful. Plus, the staff at VHV/VTC say the surrounding community in Monterey County is very supportive of the program.

California’s HUB program addresses a major problem. According to the Criminal Justice Council, there are more veterans imprisoned in the U.S. [181,500] than there are total prisoners in all but 14 other countries. Hats off to the California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation, the Legislature and the Governor for helping veterans who got themselves sideways with the law.


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