By Dana Simas, CDCR Public Information Officer
Avenal State Prison (ASP) was recently recognized by the California Department of Veterans Affairs (CalVet) as well as the prison’s Inmate Men’s Advisory Council (IMAC) for their dedication to providing an opportunity for military veterans – both California Department of Corrections and Rehabilitation (CDCR) staff and inmates – to easily get in touch with their federal or state veterans service benefits.
Soon after becoming the Warden at ASP, Carl Wofford, a military veteran himself, recognized the need for the prison to put in place a veteran’s service program to not only help connect veterans with their benefits but to help their transition back into.
ASP has nearly 380 inmates who have served in the military, approximately 10 percent of the prison’s inmate population.
In 2012, the California legislature passed Assembly Bill 2490 which required CDCR to develop guidance policies to assist honorably discharged veterans who are inmates in pursuing claims for federal veterans’ benefits.
Last year, Warden Wofford created the Veterans Group of Avenal as an outreach program to offer support and guidance for veterans at the institution.
ASP’s Community Resource Manager Larry Chavarria was tasked with making the program a success.
Chavarria reached out to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs’ Health Care for Re-entry Veterans Program, Northern representative, George Kennedy who provided guidance to the prison on re-entry services and benefits available to veterans.
Kennedy also put Chavarria in touch with the Kings County Veterans Service Office (KCVSO) to determine the logistics for implementation.
Initially, the KCVSO sent representatives to ASP to provide an orientation session to inmates in each of the six facilities on ASP grounds. The orientation started off with presentations on the function of the KCVSO and how they can get incarcerated veterans and CDCR staff connected with their benefits.
After the initial orientation meetings, ASP’s Senior Librarian, Vicki Carroll, stepped up and offered assistance.
Since all of ASP’s facilities have a law library it was decided that would be the designated Veterans Service Office of Avenal State Prison, a central point of resources for incarcerated vets.
ASP’s IMAC expressly thanked the prison’s law librarians for putting forth time and effort to facilitate inmate appointments and sign-ups for meetings.
Since the orientation sessions, the KCVSO sends two representatives to the prison every Thursday to meet with veterans individually to gather personal discharge information, process claims, and answer any questions.
At the first CDCR staff meeting, the KCVSO helped 62 employees get in touch with their benefits.
ASP’s Warden even approved a secure laptop for the KCVSO representatives to gather personal information and process claims on the spot, expediting the process even further.
First, an inmate or staff member’s eligibility is verified by reviewing discharge paperwork for each veteran.
Then the KCVSO makes requests to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for service medical records, personnel records, and anything that can help connect a current disease or disability that was sustained while the veteran was on active duty. This includes diseases that may have developed long after the veteran’s duty had ended.
The KCVSO not only helps inmates and CDCR staff connect with medical benefits but also helps connect them with financial benefits such as tuition grants for college courses, assistance for their children, or housing assistance.
“It is clear (ASP) have collaboratively been able to execute the objectives of AB 2490 by initiating the benefits application process for incarcerated veterans and establishing standards of practice,” George Kennedy, a Re-entry Specialist with the California Department of Veterans Affairs said.
“I would like to extend my appreciation for the support provided by Warden Wofford and the efforts of Mr. Larry Chavarria, and the King’s County Veterans Service Office for I believe to be the first full enactment of AB 2490 within the California prison system,” Kennedy said.
Due to the collaboration between CalVet, the KCVSO, and dedication of CDCR staff to helping inmates, veterans are now getting their claims assessed on the spot rather than waiting until the inmate is released. These pre-release services will help inmates’ transition back into society.
“Warden Carl Wofford’s successful implementation of the Veterans Group of Avenal with the establishment of the ASP-Veterans Services Office demonstrates the value of veterans helping veterans,” one inmate in the IMAC wrote in a July 18 note.
The program is now fully operational at all six facilities at ASP. One of the representatives from the KCVSO also stated they are working with Corcoran State Prison as well as California Substance Abuse Treatment Facility and State Prison, Corcoran on their veteran’s affairs services.
For more information on Incarcerated Veterans benefits, visit the California Department of Veterans Affairs website.