Veterans in Prison


Public concern is increasingly being expressed about the high numbers of veterans in the prison system – many more than from any other profession.

A considerable number of them are ex-soldiers who have served in conflicts and many of them are suffering from the hidden wounds of combat related mental traumas. It is these veterans who are increasing the numbers of former armed service personnel in prison.

A condition like combat related post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is a trigger for the acts that lead many veterans to prison and it often remains undiagnosed.

Some veterans, suffering from undiagnosed PTSD and therefore not receiving treatment, have served one jail term, then been released and have gone on to commit the same sort of crime and have ended up in prison again.

Identifying Veterans Suffering from PTSD

A veteran may return bodily from conflict, but his head often remains in the war zone. Walking down to the shops, his wife will try to engage him in chat about everyday issues – but he is scanning the windows and roofs of buildings for snipers. A car backfires and she scarcely breaks step – but he has crashed over a front garden wall and is lying prone trying to discern the direction of ‘the shot’. In a pub the veteran will insist on sitting with his back to the wall, in a position to scan the entrance and exit doors.
Family and friends think that a stranger has returned to them, but the veteran will think that it is them who are out of step and not him. To them his behaviour is bizarre and irrational, but for the veteran it is not only rational – but also necessary (to protect his family and himself).

It has been my experience that the authorities prefer to ignore and hide the problem of veterans who are suffering from combat related PTSD, but an additional problem to identifying veterans with this condition is that they themselves are often very resistant to any suggestion that they may be suffering from ‘mental problems’ (veterans can also be very suspicious of interest in them and are often averse to answering question).

To overcome this problem, in our work with veterans in prison, we have produced a Veterans and their Families Survival Guide to Combat Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, which Veterans in Prison (VIP) gives out free to any veteran, or close family member, who requests it. Jimmy Johnson, a Northern Ireland and Aden veteran serving a life sentence in HMP Frankland, wrote it in a way that veterans and their families can easily understand. Jimmy suffers from PTSD, is a founder of VIP and has campaigned on this issue for over two decades and has written extensively about it (page three of my submission – Recognising Combat Related Metal Trauma – was adapted from Jimmy’s writings).

Jimmy has met hundreds of other veterans inside prison and still has contact with many. He knows the prison system inside out and can give you invaluable advice about the problems veterans encounter within it.

I respectfully ask that your Inquiry should resolve to talk to as many of the veterans in the criminal justice system as is possible, starting with Jimmy – and not just rely on the information from ‘MoD experts’.

Recognising Combat Related Mental Trauma

Veterans will not tell their wives, families or friends that they are suffering from Combat PTSD – because they simply do not know themselves.
A veteran suffering from the hidden wound of combat related PTSD appears to live in a separate world – but the condition will often show itself in several ways

Strange Behaviour at Home – The veteran’s behaviour at home begins to get on his wife and family’s nerves. He often sits at home and hardly ever speaks to his wife and family. The veteran does not seem to care or worry about the running of the family home, he doesn’t seem interested.

Work – The veteran after a few weeks back home manages to get a job – then, often after only a few days or weeks, he packs the job in.

Horrors –The veteran suffering from Combat PTSD brings home ‘new’ sleeping habits: nightmares. He may also experience ‘flashbacks’ to traumatic incidents experienced during combat.

Drink and Drugs – The veteran suffering Combat PTSD starts drinking alcohol or taking drugs. This can be an attempt at self-medication – to take away the memory and pain.

Got to be Alone – The veteran may have a good job and working as normal then suddenly he disappears, away from everyone.

Wrong Information – The veteran suffering from Combat PTSD will at times feel very nervous for no apparent reason.

Sounds / Noises – Sudden loud noises like fireworks can dredge-up suppressed memories of combat, but veterans can also feel threatened if they hear any sounds they cannot recognise (especially at home).

Panic – A veteran will not stay inside a small room when other strangers are present – he will leave.

Mood Swings / Depression – The veteran has very bad mood swings and suffers from bouts of depression and thoughts of suicide.

The veteran has terrible outbursts of rage and resorts to violence easily – The veteran explodes with rage at small trivial things. Sometimes the rage explodes into fury and violence is used.

The veteran may well end up in prison
For many veterans the aftermath of conflict often leads to
Alcoholism, Divorce, Homelessness, Prison and Suicide
And this happens on a much larger scale than is generally known.
Combat Related PTSD

The early years of the conflict in Northern Ireland coincided with the latter years of the Vietnam War. One legacy of the USA’s involvement in Vietnam was the psychological problems that afflicted many of the GIs after they returned home.

In 1990, fifteen years after the ending of the Vietnam War, a study in the US found that over fifteen per cent of Vietnam veterans were still suffering from PTSD. Many with this condition were unemployed and liable to abuse alcohol or drugs. Seventy per cent had failed marriages and almost half had served terms in prison.

Four years later, in 1994, a study by CRISIS into homeless people in London found that: ‘Around one-quarter of all single homeless people have served in the forces.’ Twenty-nine per cent of the ex-service people interviewed said they were suffering from nerves, depression and stress. Forty-one per cent of them had spent time in prison.
These were mainly veterans of Northern Ireland and the Falklands, with a few from the 2nd World War, Malaya, Korea, Kenya, Cyprus and Aden. They have now been joined by veterans from the Gulf War, Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan.

During a visit to the US, in 1990, Vietnam veterans told me that it had taken a huge effort by them and their civilian allies to get the authorities there to admit that many veterans were suffering from combat related psychological problems. They faced a further battle before they succeeded in having the name post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) recognised for the problem.
The US authorities, during an unpopular war, did not want the issue raised and preferred to blame the background / personalities of the veterans for their problems, rather than a condition (like PTSD) that could be traced back to traumatic incidents the veterans had experienced during their tours of duty.
Vietnam veterans also told me that the US authorities would often produce ‘experts’, who would claim to be non-partisan, but who always attempted to rubbish and negate the appeals and concerns of the veterans.

When I started to campaign for British veterans I soon realised that the authorities here were acting in the same way (that their preference was to keep the problems hidden – rather than do something about it).
The MoD and successive Governments denied there was a problem, or that there were high numbers of veterans in prison. Even today, they not only try to hide the numbers of veterans suffering from combat related mental traumas, but also try to obscure the nature and source of their conditions (like in the US they do not want to recognise PTSD as a main problem). They also produce ‘experts’, who are expert in spin, – and who, to those interested, attempt to minimise and bewilder about the numbers and nature of the problem.
However, the problem is further complicated by the fact that many veterans themselves do not want to know, or consider, that they might be suffering from ‘mental problems’. (Surely, hard, tough soldiers would not succumb to a condition like PTSD, they think).

Today, in the UK there are over 80,000 men imprisoned in England and Wales (with Scotland and Northern Ireland added the total is over 90,000). People from all walks of life have been imprisoned and even MPs have spent time in prison. So it should be no surprise that some ex-forces members end up in prison too.
However, it is the fact that there are such high numbers of veterans in the prison system that causes concern – many more than from any other profession. A considerable number of them are ex-soldiers who have served in conflicts and many of them are suffering from combat related mental traumas. It is these veterans who have drastically increased the numbers of ex-forces personnel in prison.

In the past, for over two decades Veterans in Prison (VIP) campaigners were consistently told by the MoD and Governments that there were ‘no statistics’ for the numbers of ex-forces personnel in prison. VIP then contacted veterans in different prisons and asked then to carry out head counts of prisoners, in total and then the veterans, on their prison wing. In the prisons tested the results consistently showed that 6% to 9% of prisoners were ex-army veterans, while less than 1% were either ex-Royal Navy or ex-RAF.

A few years later, in September 2009, NAPO – the Trade Union and Professional Association for Family Court and Probation Staff – published a briefing paper that concluded that 8.5% of the prison population, nearly 8,000, were ex-military and that 6% of those on probation and parole, about 12,000, were also veterans.

Shortly after this, in January 2010 the Ministry of Justice then at last produced a study suggesting that 3%, about 2,500, of the prison population are veterans.

The fact is, that up to now, there have been no definitive figures produced to give the exact numbers of veterans in the prison system – but the VIP and NAPO figures are a cause for alarm.
If they are correct, this would mean that a total of around 20,000 veterans are now in the criminal justice system – around 8,000 in prisons and 12,000 on probation or parole .

There is growing evidence to show that many of the veterans who find themselves in the prison system are suffering from PTSD, or other combat related mental trauma. NAPO stated in their study, which contained the details of 90 case histories of veterans sentenced to community penalties, that ‘nearly half were suffering from diagnosed or undiagnosed post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) or depression. The principal offence was one of violence, particularly in a domestic setting. The vast majority… did not receive adequate support or counselling …’

A condition like combat related PTSD is a trigger for the acts that lead many veterans to prison and it often remains undiagnosed. Some veterans, suffering from undiagnosed PTSD and therefore not receiving treatment, have served one jail term, then been released and have gone on to commit the same sort of crime and have ended up in prison again.

A comprehensive programme to recognise the symptoms of combat related PTSD, diagnose the condition and then provide proper treatment for it, could drastically reduce the number of veterans entering the criminal justice system.

I recommend:

That any veteran, who comes into contact with the criminal justice system, should be identified as Former Armed Service Personnel at arrest or report stage – and should then be checked for combat related PTSD.

That after arrest any veteran, found to be suffering from PTSD, can be considered to have the condition recognised as a ‘mitigating circumstance’ at their trial.

That those veterans, inside or outside prison, suffering from combat related PTSD receive full, proper and ongoing treatment for this condition.


This was submitted to Rory Stewart MP by Aly Renwick of VFP UKaly pro


  1. Alex Hardman says:

    Some interesting points you bring up David – as an ex army member and FE College lecturer in Outdoor Education for 13 years I put forward my opinion plus accounts of my experience (N Ireland) to students. I am careful to distinguish that these are my opinions and not that of my employer who would not want to be seen as radical in fear of a drop in recruitment figures….
    My employer is however very positive on making links with organisations who promote ‘rehabilitation’ – is there a more suitable word to use here? – of ex forces people. I am working on such a link this week – watch this space. If anyone could suggest any training, studies, papers written in this area I would use them for that purpose.

  2. David Marchesi says:

    The matter ought to be brought into the open in discussion groups such as those run in U3A and other adult organisations. To my mind, it should also be dealt with in sixth-forms across the country, with youngsters who are considering joining the forces being made aware of the facts.
    Ideally, the very rich “Help For Heroes” should join in the discussion- I suppose it devotes some of its large funds to the rehabilitation of ptsd etc victims ?Also,of course, the British Legion .I admire Aly Renwick for his long fight to bring the cost of warfare (and”police actions” which should presumably be run by the police ?) in terms of mental suffering for veterans to our attention.

  3. It would be interesting to know how many of the veterans who are now prisoners were prescribed the anti-malarial drug mefloquine, which has now been banned by the U.S. military but according to this article dated September 2013 is still being prescribed to British service men and women.

  4. Bart Bolger says:

    Very similar to our problems here in the US. Excellent post. Thanks very much.
    Over here we’re gradually making some inroads in some areas, such as creating special veterans’ courts similar to the hugely successful drug courts. But these are scarce. Most jurisdictions are opposed to using PTSD as a factor during trial.
    Could someone post here the status of the inquiry mentioned in the letter?

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