PORTSMOUTH, Va. (WAVY) — According to the American Civil Liberties Union, more than 180,000 men and women who served this country are now serving time behind bars. 54-year-old Samuel Harris, a veteran from Suffolk, has been incarcerated for more than two decades.
From high school to the Army, Samuel Harris was well on his way to seeing the world. But in the late 1980s, injuries from a training accident contributed to a drug-fueled downward spiral. According to his sister, Pamela Copeland, Harris turned to the VA Medical Center for help.
“He had gotten addicted to drugs also he was a veteran and during that time he was trying to get help through the VA by going to the VA hospital. They turned, for some reason, discharged him like, the same day or the next day, without getting any treatment,” said Copeland.
Addiction led to crime and crime led to convictions on several charges, including robbery, use of a firearm, carjacking, abduction, and hit-and-run. His prison sentence was 220 years with 60 to serve. While behind bars, according to a letter Harris set to 10 On Your Side in March of last year, the Suffolk native learned the VA failed to diagnose and treat him for post-traumatic stress disorder. 23 years later Harris is drug-free, the author of two books, a model prisoner, and the creator of two programs to help vets behind bars.
“He found out, while incarcerated, a lot of veterans didn’t know they were entitled to certain benefits,” said Copeland.
His 2018 application for clemency was approved in August when Governor Youngkin issued a conditional pardon. Harris’s dedicated sister explained her brother’s reaction when he shared the good news.
“Honesty, he was in tears. It was amazing… it was amazing!” said Copeland
10 On Your Side, Copeland said, played a role in securing her brother’s release.
“I do believe the coverage that you did previously played a major role in the decision that was made. I appreciate you [reporter Regina Mobley] just taking the time and being able to help. You really helped a lot,” said Copeland.
Regina Mobley: Many families will see this story and they have loved ones who are still incarcerated. What can you share with them to give them hope, that one day, their loved one will come home?
Pamela Copeland: Don’t give up. It’s a process and sometimes it is a long drawn out process but don’t give up; there is hope.
According to a letter Harris sent to 10 On Your Side, his original release date was May 2052; under the conditional pardon, Harris will be released around September 2025.
Virginia has a Veterans Support Group that is offered at most VADOC facilities, including those without a veterans housing unit.