TAMPA — Even as they serve their time, incarcerated veterans in Hillsborough County can now receive mental health therapy sessions, career development training and more through a new Veterans Resurgence Program.
The brainchild of Sheriff Chad Chronister, the program is intended to stop recidivism among military veterans in the Falkenburg Road Jail by providing them with resources, counseling and access to services that will help them start over upon release.
"We are giving these veterans that ended up in our jails an opportunity to feel proud again,” Chronister said in a statement. “This is how we thank them for their service."
At any given time, about two percent of the inmates in Hillsborough County detention facilities — or about 60 people — are veterans, according to the sheriff.
Mental health specialists from NaphCare, a healthcare provider for correctional facilities across the U.S., and student interns from the University of South Florida’s Master of Social Work program will meet with participating inmates for an eight-week group therapy program that extends into career advice, money management, conflict resolution and personal therapy sessions.
Riaan van Zyl, director of the university’s School of Social Work, noted that if the veterans program is a success, the school is interested in replicating the therapy model for civilian inmates.
Participants in the resurgence program will have their service verified through the Veterans Administration and will be housed in a separate jail unit decorated with military flags. There are currently 35 veterans involved, including Johnny Garcia, who was arrested on June 26 for stolen property and grand theft. Garcia was previously arrested twice for battery domestic violence.
In an interview provided by the sheriff’s office, Garcia acknowledged his faults and spoke of the new program’s necessity.
“Being approached with the veterans program shows some light at the end of the tunnel,” Garcia said.
A similar program out of the Pasco County Sheriff’s Office that opened in 2014 has seen a measure of success in terms of inmates’ willingness to engage with the program, a Pasco sheriff’s office spokesperson said in a statement.
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Other existing programs for veterans in the criminal justice system include Tampa’s Veteran Treatment Court, where veterans can get their charges dismissed if they complete a rigorous therapy and community service program.
DJ Reyes, coordinator of the Tampa Veteran Treatment Court mentorship program, said the new jail program provides a needed alternative for veterans who were dishonorably discharged by connecting them to services and benefits they are not eligible to receive through the VA.
“This is what we need to do as a community,” Reyes said.
Additional partners such as the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay will assist in planning the veterans’ reentry into society.