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Jail's veterans unit provides inmates with sense of purpose, direction

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Brotherhood Behind Bars

By Deborah Swearingen

The bang of the jail cell door was enough to jolt some of the veterans from a deep sleep and catapult them back to combat.

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“At night, the loud pop of the door opening would scare a lot of us. Or we’d be asleep, and we’d just wake up panicked. It’s kind of stressful,” said Hondo Underwood, a Marine Corps veteran and one of the first inmates to be part of the Jeffco jail’s veterans unit.

Alongside Lt. Mike Prange, Underwood set out to make a change, and because of his suggestion, the veterans are now allowed to leave their doors open.

It is little things like this that set the 32-person, all-male veterans unit apart from the regular population at the Jeffco jail. The unit, which opened last November, provides access to programs such as emotion regulation, occupational readiness, healthy choices, relapse prevention, anger management and grief loss. Inmates roam freely within the unit during the day and have more allotted recreational time.

To join, inmates must be veterans. They go through a screening and cannot have any behavioral issues, but they can come from minimum-, medium- or maximum-security units.

Jeffco officials hope the veterans unit will reduce recidivism rates by providing veteran inmates with access to resources and a sense of camaraderie.

The benefits and the bonds

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

Because the Jeffco veterans unit is just seven months old, the detention center doesn’t have any data to prove its effectiveness or demonstrate its benefit.

However, the El Paso County jail does. It was the first of its kind in Colorado. 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 Jeffco’s detention center, said his staff members visited El Paso County and worked with its staff to help build the unit.

“It has been extremely popular,” said Jacqueline Kirby, spokeswoman for the El Paso County Sheriff’s Office.

In fact, she said, one veteran, who spent time in the El Paso County Jail before being sentenced to the Sterling Correctional Facility, brought the idea to the Department of the Corrections. Ultimately, Sterling implemented a similar ward mirrored after El Paso County’s ward.

But perhaps of most importance is the sense of community shared between veterans. Often, there is an inexplicable bond, a shared understanding of the sometimes horrific nature of war. This is something that both inmate and deputy veterans can attest to, and it is part of the reason why Jeffco’s unit has been successful thus far.

“I love this unit. It’s like being in the military again,” said Jerry DeVaul, an Army veteran and Jeffco inmate. “ … You know, we look out for each other.”

Understanding the past

The deputies and inmates realize that to make a change, it’s important to understand the root of the behavior.

“In the military, we’re trained to be solid. We’re trained to be hard, and kind of, I guess, hide our feelings. Smiling and laughing, I didn’t do a lot of that before I went to jail,” Underwood said. “So I feel like it kind of opened me up a little bit to the reality of things.”

Of all the opportunities and classes available to the veteran inmates, many see Moral Reconation Therapy — or MRT — as the most valuable. The cognitive behavioral therapy was designed for substance abuse treatment and offender populations.

“MRT was the biggest one,” Underwood added. “It opened me up to, like, really think about what led me to this step, to this step, to this step throughout a period of time.”

In early April, sitting around a table traditionally used for games, several veteran inmates dug deep into MRT with Deputy Russell Montanio, an Army veteran.

They shared stories of abuse, addiction and loss. For some, tears began to fall as they discussed personal moments, but each understood that what was said would stay within the walls of the unit.

“You tell it in front of these guys, and it stays in that room. Nobody else knows it,” DeVaul said. “You’ve got to be honest with yourself, too. … (and) you have to really trust these people.”

The MRT sessions are deeply intimate, and by opening up and being vulnerable, the inmates learn to talk through problems instead of resorting to violence.

As veterans, they join together and take care of each other. They hold each other accountable.

Navigating a better future

In the long run, that accountability becomes the saving grace for those in the veterans unit since one of the main factors leading to recidivism is the inability to understand the problem and make changes. Often, inmates leave jail — a place where they are forced to remain sober and out of trouble — and relapse or jump back into old ways.

But the veterans unit looks to alter that behavior by finding the root of the problem and providing resources to ensure it’s less likely to recur.

“They want to see less of a comeback,” Underwood said. “ … (The veterans unit) gives them more of a direction of where they want to go, what they can do.”

“It’s not always the drug you relapse on. It’s the activity,” he later added.

Underwood, for instance, was accepted to Jeffco’s veterans treatment court and is now living in Harbor Lights, a Salvation Army rehabilitation center in downtown Denver. Through the center, he hopes to obtain employment and continue bettering himself.

All in all, he appreciated the veterans unit as a place to learn more about himself and the resources available for veterans. But that’s not all he learned in the unit.

“It showed us that we are somewhat appreciated,” he said. “But it took for us to go to jail to realize that.”

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