Jerry Lytle’s story is a familiar one among veterans behind bars. He never collected the benefits he earned from service in the Army, and once in prison, he didn’t realize he still could.
“In 2004, I met up with another veteran who was getting benefits, and he said, ‘you know, you should get your benefits. You’re entitled to them’,” recalls Lytle. He’s serving 32 to life for murder. Even so, he’s entitled to disability benefits because he suffers from PTSD and his exposure to Agent Orange in Vietnam.
The VA pays less to veterans in prison. At most Lytle can get $133.17 a month. If he wasn’t incarcerated, his monthly payment would be $1059.09. Still when he filed for disability, he says he got the run around.
“I think because I was in prison, I couldn’t deal directly with them. I was dealing with them through the mail. The only process I had. I really believe that they were really trying to discourage me to give up,” says Lytle.
He didn’t give up, but it wasn’t persistence that finally worked. It was a transfer to the Soledad Correctional Training Facility in the Salinas Valley, which is home to a unique inmate-run program.
Inmates and Vietnam Veterans Ed Munis and Michael “Doc” Piper run a veteran service office (VSO) where they help incarcerated vets file for and fight for their VA benefits including disability, education and burial benefits for those who die behind bars. Munis says this all started because of Doc.
“I got here in 2003, and right away he found out a little bit about my background and pestered me for a couple of years,” says Munis.
Munis is serving 25 to life for his wife’s murder. But before that, he was a lobbyist in Sacramento working on veterans issues. He says when he first got here he was too distracted with his appeal. But eventually they worked on a plan to create this office, which made its way to the warden.
“And the day after her read it, we were up and running,” says Munis. The warden gave them a typewriter and a small filing cabinet. Since then their office space has grown in to a large room just off the prison’s main corridor.
Their work has also grown. Beyond helping the veterans in this prison, they are also working with some incarcerated vets by mail at every prison in California and in 23 other states where word of their work has spread in newsletters. Munis says most vets didn’t know they could still get benefits in prison.
“There’s an awful lot of people that are in the VA, as well as general public, that are not too excited about helping out convicted felons, people that are incarcerated. So that’s been a struggle. So far we’ve prevailed,” says Munis.
On the two computers in their office, they’ve kept detailed records of their work. Their numbers show over the past decade, they’ve helped about 1,000 incarcerated veterans get more than $15-million in benefits for themselves and their dependents. Its work they do seven days a week, eight hours a day.
“I’m not in prison when I leave my cell in the morning and walk in this office. Prison doesn’t happen again until we leave for the evening,” says Munis.
“It’s a program I’m very proud of,” says Marion Spearman, the current Warden at Soledad CTF. He says the CTF is a programing prison where inmates can pursue career education in fields like welding, fiber optics and construction. So while he wasn’t in charge when the VSO started, it’s a natural fit for this prison.
“I support those veterans to be better men while they are here in prison, and to provide everything we can give to them, so that when they leave our prison they have a skill set to be successful back in society, especially since they helped with the freedom of this country,” says Warden Spearman.
He says in having a program like this there has to be a level of trust with the inmates, but also, “there has to be certain security controls in place.”
So in the prison VSO, the inmates have computers, but no internet access. They have a phone, but need authorization if they’re going to get a line out of the prison. And their printer is locked in a cage so staff can review what they print.
They also don’t have accreditation from the VA, which means they lack the authority to represent veterans in the claims process. That’s where they rely on the outside from the Monterey County Office of Military and Veterans Affairs.
“We can access and check status on appeals and help them with appeals on the outside,” says George Dixon, Director of the Monterey County Office of Military and Veterans Affairs.
His office also helps the prison office by reviewing the inmates' claims and submitting them to the VA. Dixon says his job is not to judge these veterans for their crimes, but to help them get what they earned.
“When you look at some of the discharges, combat experience Vietnam, Gulf War, Persian Gulf, Grenada, Panama and those are the individuals that are in there,” says Dixon.
It’s why his office is working to develop a similar program at the neighboring Salinas Valley State Prison. There they’ve trained seven inmates to help them identify veterans and start the VA paperwork.
Back at Soledad CTF, inmate Ed Munis hopes to reach more veterans in a different way. “I plan on paroling here. I plan on continuing to do this until they put a tag on my toe, and bury me,” says Munis.
His first chance at parole comes up in a couple of years. If he gets out, he says he’d work to expand this program in prisons up and down the state.