Globe Opinion and Legal Lens Prison Reform

Our film follows Bill, a decorated Vietnam veteran who is halfway through a two-year sentence to the Housing Unit for Military Veterans at the Middlesex County Jail. Bill has been battling PTSD and its symptoms since he came home to Lynn in the 1960s. When he was sentenced, Bill asked to be placed in HUMV — leaving a facility closer to his home that offered daily visitations with his wife — because he believed the veterans’ community would be the better and safer place for him.

When Veterans Treatment Courts first opened in Massachusetts, organizers thought they would be dealing only with men and women impacted by the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead, they also saw veterans from the Gulf War, Vietnam, and even Korea. They represented generations of veterans who have been struggling alone, or to use Bill’s words, “fighting a war for 50 years,” ever since they left the battlefield behind.

That war can include contact with the criminal justice system. Four years ago, Middlesex County Jail, using new Veterans Administration data available to identify service members, counted almost three times as many veterans as had self-reported. The sheriff and the facility created a specialized unit to provide treatment and community within the jail. HUMV is now home to pretrial and post-conviction veterans. The recidivism rate for the unit is 7 percent, well below the national average of 50 percent. The bunk-style dorms, relative freedom of movement within the unit, personal interaction with corrections officers, and group and individual therapy stand in contrast to the rest of the facility.


The question the film asks is not how the justice system should treat veterans who are incarcerated. Instead, the question is: What does it say about us as a society that so many veterans are incarcerated in the first place? And moreover, if this alternative model works for this particular group, in this particular county, then why is it not used for every other person incarcerated in America, veterans and nonveterans alike?


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David Benger is a student at Harvard Law School. Elisabeth Mabus and Peerce McManus graduated from Harvard Law School in 2019.