INDIANTOWN – The state of Florida announced today that it would honor residents who have served in the U.S. armed forces, including the ones who are currently incarcerated in a state prison.
“The nation owes them a debt, even if they did fall off the straight and narrow,” said Jo Ellyn Rackleff, spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Corrections.
DOC held a press conference this morning at the Martin Correctional Institution in Indiantown, to announce that the state agency overseeing Florida’s prisons was launching a new re-entry initiative known as the Veteran’s Dormitory program.
The program featuring special dorms for veterans is being established at five Florida prisons: Martin, Gulf, Santa Rosa, Sumter and Lowell Correctional Institutions.
The new Veteran’s Dormitories will house inmates who have served in the military and are within three years of being released from prison.
“The way they are chosen is their attitude and actions during their incarceration,” Rackleff said in an interview with Freeline Media. “And it depends on when they are getting out.”
The new dorms, she added, will provide the incarcerated veterans with an opportunity to participate in specialized pre-release services that include cognitive thinking training, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder counseling, and improved access to Veteran’s Affairs benefits. Strict military standards will be applied inside the Veteran’s Dormitories.
“It is really about helping them succeed,” Rackleff said. “Once they get released, if they are able to straighten out their lives, that makes the entire community safer. It is just a part of our Re-Entry approach.”
Inmates living in the Veteran’s Dormitories, she said, will have an incentive to maintain good behavior while in prison, and are more likely to be law-abiding once they get out.
There are now 6,700 inmates in Florida’s prisons, Rackleff said, who are veterans.
“It is self-reported,” she said. “If someone tells us they are a veteran, we check on that to verify it.”
Each dorm will hold 400 inmates, she added.
“We only have the five dorms statewide,” Rackleff said, adding that right now DOC is not planning on expanding it to a correctional institute in Orlando.
Lowell CI, in Ocala, is the closest one to this city.
Although these special dorms have been in the works for months, Rackleff said DOC wanted the program to be launched on the same week as Veteran’s Day, which is on Friday.
“The grand opening was timed with that in mind,” she said.
The corrections officers working at the Veteran’s Dormitories will also have military backgrounds, and life in there will have special daily routines that include flag raising and retiring ceremonies, and the use of military standards in the way inmates maintain their clothing, bunks and living quarters.
“The military emphasizes pride, character and integrity,” DOC Secretary Ken Tucker said. “By housing veteran inmates in the same dorm before their release from prison, they can work together to recapture some of those qualities, while also learning about programs and benefits available specifically for veterans.”
The Orlando Veterans Administration Medical Center in Baldwin Park has an initiative called the Incarcerated Veterans program. A veteran’s justice outreach coordinator visits the state’s jails and prisons to find inmates who are also veterans. The staff interview the inmates, record what happened to them and how they ended up behind bars, and then go back to the legal system to see if they can get their sentence reduced – or get them released altogether.
Rackleff noted that many of today’s veterans are not men and women in their 60s or 70s who served in decades-old conflicts like Vietnam or Korea, but rather young soldiers in their 20s who have served in the past few years in Afghanistan and Iraq. Jamie Brown, coordinator of Marine Families of Polk County, a non-profit agency based in Winter Haven, agreed.
Marine Families is a program aimed at helping soldiers from Central Florida who are now serving in the Middle East, and their local families. She said soldiers can be back from a tour of duty by the age of 22, and often find a rough job market awaiting them.
“A veteran can be as young as 22,” she said. “They can go in when they’re 17, as long as they have their parents’ permission. They can go in and be back in the world before their peers have graduated from college. It’s a tough spot for any veteran to be in today, but I have to say, some of the younger ones, they are coming into a job market that is completely different than what they had expected. There is not that much out there for the young ones. They come out of this structured environment and all of a sudden they’re out and having to deal with this. They don’t have as much of the life maturity as some older veterans. In a sense, a military member is coming out thinking ‘The U.S. Government has supported us, and we’re going to go out and get a job,’ and it’s not as easy as it sounds.”
Florida now houses 102,000 inmates in 63 state prisons, and supervises more than 115,000 active offenders on community release supervision.
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