Published May 05, 2012
A Georgia sheriff says he is opening the first county jail in the U.S. exclusively for inmates who are military veterans.
"The people in the veterans dorm get access to programs that will hopefully be addressing their concerns or needs," said Muscogee County Sheriff John Darr. "When they transition back into the community we don't have the problem [of recidivism.]"
Darr went on to say, true crime prevention is having people not commit the same offense or crimes over and over again. He wants to keep folks from circulating in and out of the jail system.
And it's not costing his community a dime. All the programs that help these inmates are volunteer based.
"What we're looking at is having one big partnership to deal with this certain group," Darr said. "Here is a certain demographic that needs to deal with their issues and not only within the facility -- but as they transition back into this community."
The 16-person dorm provides access to a variety of community services including addiction programs and depression treatment. Darr works with the National Alliance on Mental Illness or NAMI, New Horizons -- a local mental health counseling group. The Plummer House, which provides housing for homeless and previously incarcerated veterans as well as AA volunteers.
"In our opinion -- throughout different communities especially near military bases, you're going to see a growing trend of people as they come back and get deactivated," Sheriff Darr said. "And if they're not dealing with these issues they may have -- where are they going to go? They're going to go to local county jails."
Reverend Neil Richardson has worked with the county for years. He takes pride in the fact these veterans are making big strides in the program right out of the gate.
"What we are doing is starting the process and making it seamless post incarceration," said Rev. Richardson. "The mentor they have here will be the mentor they have when they get outside. They have responded to the respect that been given to them by respecting themselves and respecting us back."
Blake Chester is living proof. He served our country in the U.S. Army for more than four years before coming back home and struggling with alcoholism. He made some bad choices and found himself in and out of jail. Until now, he didn't know if he'd ever break the cycle.
"It really gives you that feeling that you're not pushed aside," Chester said. "You haven't slipped between the cracks and you're still a part of something. Even if it has been a long time, you're still a part of something and we all try to really help one another and look after one another."
Chester says he's talked with counselors and other inmates. He's confident when he's finished his jail sentence, he'll never return.
The sheriff and Rev. Richardson say they're on the brink of an emerging trend.
"We've had phone calls from other jurisdictions asking about what they've heard about what we're doing here," said Rev. Richardson. "I think you’re going to see this happen more and more in other places."
According to a report about 9 percent of the prison population in the U.S. is made up of veterans. Similar state programs have only been seen in Florida prisons -- but never jails. And since the jail in Columbus, GA., is near Fort Benning -- one of the country’s largest military bases -- it's an area many veterans call home.
"Jail population in communities typically reflects the population of the community -- so us being a military town -- we have a lot more veterans probably than a lot of other jurisdictions that don't have a military base in their community," said Dane Collins, the jail commander.
The volunteers and jail employees say the little effort they've put on the front end will pay off. They ignore criticism and say these are the guys who need a little help.
"If there was a group that deserved a second chance, it is these guys," said “Rev Richardson. "We owe them. They served this country with valor."