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Jeffco jail opens new housing unit for military veterans

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By Deborah Swearingen

As soon as Dale Murphy heard about the new veterans’ housing unit at the Jefferson County Jail, he signed the papers to join.

“I wanted to help perpetuate the program,” the four-year Army veteran said.

“I don’t want to expect anything too much, but I do have high hopes. Man, I really have high hopes for people to come later,” Murphy added. “With it being so new, I’m not going to be able to get the full benefits, but I wanted to be here to help kick it off.”

The 32-person, all-male veterans’ housing unit is the second of its kind in Colorado. Through the housing unit, the Jeffco jail plans to provide access to programs such as emotion regulation, occupational readiness, healthy choices, relapse prevention, anger management and grief loss. Inmates can roam freely during the day and will have more allotted recreational time. To join, inmates must go through a screening and cannot have any behavioral issues, but they can come from minimum, medium or maximum security units.

The new unit opened last Friday, and 11 inmates currently reside there. Inside the cement-lined unit, an American flag hangs proudly from one wall. Five other flags representing the various military branches decorate another. A majority of the jail deputies are veterans, too, which provides inmates with an increased sense of security.

All in all, county officials, jail deputies and inmates have high hopes for what the veterans’ unit can accomplish. Namely, they predict the veterans’ unit to produce a much lower recidivism rate than the rest of the jail.

According to data from the National Institute of Justice, 67.8 percent of released prisoners were rearrested within three years of release. But data shows that a veterans’ unit can help to reduce this rate.

El Paso County is the other county in the state with a veterans’ unit. After analyzing data from 2013 to 2017, El Paso saw a 38 percent recidivism rate, significantly less than the national average. Rob Reardon, division chief for the detention center, said his staff members visited El Paso County and worked with its staff to help build the unit in Jeffco.

In addition to increased services and the potential for a lower recidivism rate, the unit serves as an outlet for collaboration — not only for the veterans and jail officials but also for outside organizations.

“By bringing them together in one unit, they’re actually going to have a lot more collaboration,” Reardon said. “We’re going to build relationships with the VA and other nonprofits that are going to allow us to actually have a better product, a better outcome by providing higher levels of service, higher levels of treatment within those units.”

On any given day, the jail has 25 to 41 self-identified veterans living within its walls, according to Reardon. But because inmates must self identify during intake, he expects the number is an underrepresentation. The unit is “starting small (but) going to build,” Reardon said.

For Jefferson County Sheriff Jeff Shrader, the unit is an exemplary way to honor veteran inmates, many of whom simply lost their way after returning to civilian life.

“We are not required to provide therapeutic services or rehabilitation programs or re-entry assistance or any other type of gratuitous service,” Shrader said. “But just because we don’t have to, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t.”

A large portion of Jeffco’s veteran inmates are in jail for crimes resulting from homelessness, mental health disorders or drug addiction and deserve the additional services, he said.

More permanent living arrangement

Before Murphy was arrested, he lived on the streets of Jeffco in a truck with his Bernese mountain dog. He hopes the veterans’ unit will help him secure a more permanent living arrangement when he is released.

Before the program started, many inmates said they were unaware of the services available to veterans.

“There’s a bunch of us that don’t know what’s available to us out there,” said Randy Gibson, a Jeffco inmate and Army National Guard veteran. “They’re supposed to help with that and help us with our problems that put us here to begin with. We all need that ’cause we don’t need to be back here again.”

With veterans, there is an inexplicable bond, a shared understanding of the often horrific nature of war. Before moving to the new housing unit, Murphy and Gibson didn’t know each other. The opportunity to form relationships with other veterans is a benefit to living in the unit, as well.

“Oh yeah, there’s a camaraderie for sure,” Murphy said. “ … It’s very hard to reintegrate. People don’t understand weird things. The simplest things like a door slamming can really throw you back there.

“It still lives with you just like yesterday.”

Contact reporter Deborah Swearingen at dswearingen@evergreenco.com or 303-350-1042. Follow her on Twitter @djswearingen.