New prisoners to be asked if they have served in armed forces in attempt to help veterans

Around 3.5 per cent of the current prison population are veterans

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The Independent Online

Every prisoner coming into custody will be asked whether they have served in the armed forces as part of an effort to improve how veterans are treated in the justice system.

From January former soldiers will be identified with a view to providing specialist support in recognition of the pressure such prisoners have faced while serving in the armed forces. The announcement has been hailed as a victory for The Independent’s homeless veteran’s appeal which has campaigned to improve the lives of former servicemen and women who have fallen on hard times.

The recommendations follow a review overseen by Justice Secretary Chris Grayling and QC Stephen Phillips which found the level of support afforded to veterans inside the justice system to be “patchy”. Under the new guidelines veterans would be identified early and helped with a “tailored approach” designed to turn them away from crime.  On leaving prison former servicemen and women will be assessed to see if they struggle with mental health problems, including depression and anxiety – symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) –  while their spouses and families will also be offered support.

Mr Grayling told Sky News: " I think we have to accept that those people who are serving in our Armed Forces, particularly over the last ten or fifteen years where most have served in theatres of combat have seen or experienced themselves terrible situations.  I think we have to accept they have been through a particular challenge in life and that’s why we have a duty of care to them.”

While the report did not cite a direct link between serving in the military and turning to crime, there has been concern over the number of veterans within the criminal justice system. The Ministry of Defence quoted 2,820 veterans in prison in 2009/2010 – around 3.5 per cent of the prison population. “When somebody commits a terrible crime and when there is, as there sometimes is, a link back to the mental trauma they have suffered in the theatre of war, it is surely right that we understand that and we work with them and make sure that when they come to be released, as all of these offenders will be in the end, that they are actually able to return to civilian life better prepared for life in the community.”

He added: We need to understand the nature of what has gone wrong in their lives and to prepare them for release so that they don’t reoffend.”

Critics of Mr Grayling are surprised by the compassionate tone. The Justice Secretary has been the target of criticism in recent months with a series of controversial prison reforms. A blanket ban on books being sent to prisoners was challenged in the High Court and overturned earlier this month.  There have been warnings of jails becoming "death traps" amid rising prison populations and budget cuts of up to 24 per cent over the past three years. Meanwhile figures show violence, suicide and self-harm among prisoners are on the rise.

Brigadier (Ret'd) Robin Bacon, Chief of Staff at ABF The Soldiers' Charity, which is benefiting from The Independent's appeal, said the recommendations were “a positive step”. “The camaraderie between ex-Servicemen and women can be a very powerful support tool and as such we are in a position to find them the right help. No veteran should be refused help because of their past.”

Labour’s Shadow Justice Secretary Sadiq Khan said: “I hope ministers will make a better fist of implementing the findings of today's overdue report than they've done of producing it in the first place. Their whole approach to the issue has been half-hearted and insulting."

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