The Alachua County Jail shared how its veteran inmates are succeeding in its Department of the Jail Veterans Pod Program with the Alachua County Board of Commissioners Tuesday.
“We had noticed that our [veteran] population was increasing, and we didn’t really have any way of handling them,” said Michelle Hart, the Alachua County Jail’s inmate support chief.
The program is one of several initiatives the Alachua County Sheriff’s Office uses to help build a sense of community among inmates.
“[The] veterans population has developed a strong sense of community and support while being housed together in the veteran pod,” Hart said.
The veteran pod operates as a dorm. Veterans are able to develop a support system within it and can develop plans for when they’re released from jail. There are also services that are specified for them, such as classes on life skills, anger management and substance abuse classes.
According to Hart, the program also offers Vocational Rehab, Veteran Benefits and the Disabled Veterans Outreach Program seminars. Veteran inmates can meet with people who can help them transition back into the community.
“They have very unique needs and situations,” Hart said.
The program dates back to 2010 when a Veterans Justice Outreach coordinator and the jail staff decided to work together on activities and services for veterans. The support continued to rise until a veteran pod was created in 2014.
Hart said that only veteran inmates are allowed to live in the pod.
“No inmates will make that up to be in that program because the other inmates will pick them out,” Hart said.
There are cases in which a veteran inmate may be denied from participation in the program. These cases usually involve a veteran inmate being a maximum custody level inmate, an inmate with serious charges or an inmate that requires special attention because of health needs.
The pod program features seminars that offer guidance on how to prepare for release. The seminars feature topics such as career source, veteran benefits, and the Disabled Veteran Outreach Program.
Veterans who participate in the program are also referred to the Veterans Court, a court system based on mental health courts. According to justiceforvets.org, these judges better understand issues related to veterans, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injury because they deal with them more often than normal judges.
One of the commissioners raised a concern about the veterans’ court during the presentation.
“We’re moving into an area that feels like a two-track justice system,” county commissioner Mike Byerly said.
Hart said that the court system is another issue entirely and that she was unable to speak on how the veterans’ court system is ran and whether there are any differences between that court and normal courts.
Hart said that the program has been successful in the jail with veteran inmates looking forward to being with other veteran inmates.
“It’s such a big thing for them so they don’t feel isolated,” Hart said.
Hart said a female veteran inmate, who once feared the program, became drug-free after participating in it. She began to work in the Veterans Affairs Program after being released.
“We haven’t seen her since,” Hart said.
Hart said that one of her future goals is to incorporate the female population into the program and to find a way to systematically collect data about the program.
Paula Ambrosia, veteran justice outreach specialist, said that the program itself is not unique. Many other jails have pods designated for veteran inmates.
Ambrosia said that veterans tend to be more cooperative when working with other veterans, and research shows that the program helps inmates stay out of jail.
“I can say that veterans that are eligible for services at the VA (Department of Veterans Affairs) will get those services,” Ambrosia said.