Veterans’ Health

Grantee Name

Urban Justice Center / Veteran Advocacy Project

Funding Area

Veterans’ Health

Publication Date

April 2021

Grant Amount


Grant Date:

December 2018 - January 2020

While many veterans reintegrate into civilian life without major problems, others have difficulties that bring them into contact with the justice system.

Compared with similar individuals in the general population, veterans are 8 times more likely to have post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and 2–4 times more likely to have major depression. Several studies have shown an increased risk of criminal behavior for veterans with substance use issues, PTSD, and depression. About 5% of people under New York State custody are veterans, and approximately 3,000 per year cycle through Rikers Island, New York City’s main jail. Because of inadequate veteran-specific outreach, incarcerated veterans are often unaware that they can apply for U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) services while incarcerated. They also lack knowledge about other benefits they are eligible for and the process to access those benefits.

NYHealth awarded the Urban Justice Center’s Veteran Advocacy Project (VAP) a grant to address the health and legal needs of justice-involved veterans on Rikers Island.

Outcomes and Lessons Learned

  • Connected veterans on Rikers Island to non-VA and VA services, including primary and behavioral health care.
  • Assigned case managers to help veterans with a health care plan for reentry.
  • Created a partnership with Kings County Veterans Treatment Court to help veterans access veteran-specific resources.
  • Conducted outreach and education to Kings County court staff to increase cultural competency to better serve veterans.
  • Held dozens of “Know-Your-Rights” presentations for veterans on Rikers Island.
  • Educated more than 100 stakeholders who interact with veterans in the criminal justice system, including Veterans Justice Outreach coordinators with VA, judges, and Rikers Island staff.
  • Opened 95 legal cases for veterans on Rikers Island, including character-of-discharge upgrades, disability claims, appeals for VA benefits, and VA health care access.
  • Built stakeholder coalitions and organized consumer trainings with an array of partners, including member organizations, consumer advocates, and legislative representatives.

VAP aimed to help veterans reintegrate successfully back into society and prevent them from being involved with the justice system in the future. VAP quickly surpassed its goal of opening 35 new cases within the first few months. In fact, staff members were overwhelmed by the demand for assistance by veterans on Rikers Island. To ensure it did not advertise services it would not be able to provide, VAP had to scale back outreach and limit assistance based on attorney bandwidth. Without an increase of staff, veterans on Rikers Island will continue to have unmet legal needs.

Similarly, the gaps in services for veterans on Rikers Island proved too vast for VAP to properly identify and address in the scope of this project. To maximize the impact of resources available, VAP chose to allocate its staff time to opening as many cases as possible. To streamline services for incarcerated veterans, VAP recommends integrating veteran services into previously existing reentry programs to avoid siloed services, as well as additional training for reentry workers to better understand the needs and services available to justice-involved veterans on Rikers Island. This project was successful but also revealed that the size of the problem would require a more systemic solution.

Co-Funding and Additional Funds Leveraged: