Improving outcomes for incarcerated veterans

King County is helping incarcerated veterans get back on their feet and preventing recidivism through a new pilot program that is showing encouraging results for participants.

“The transition from military to civilian life can be a difficult one for many veterans and sadly some veterans end up involved in the criminal justice system,” King County Executive Dow Constantine said. “With this program we are making sure that these veterans get the support and services they need to thrive and succeed here in King County.”

Program Managers Chelsea Baylen and Nancy Garcia receiving a DAJD award for their work on the Incarcerated Veteran’s Pilot Project.

Veterans coming into contact with the criminal justice system have a number of unmet needs across multiple domains including housing, employment, and behavioral health. Programs for justice-involved veterans offer resources to help stabilize and support veterans with services geared towards their specific needs.

Executive Constantine directed the Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention (DJAD) and the Department of Community and Human Services (DCHS) to form an advisory group in 2014 to review methods used to identify incarcerated veterans in King County adult correctional facilities, current services available to those veterans, and best practices employed by other jurisdictions.

The veterans program at the King County Regional Justice Center in Kent builds on a 2012 DCHS Veterans Justice Initiative designed to coordinate the criminal justice and veterans services systems – local, state and federal – and facilitate veteran-specific training for the justice system and service providers in King County. It relies on funding from the Veterans and Human Services Levy, which Executive Constantine has proposed replacing when it expires at the end of 2017.

On any given day, dozens of self-identified military veterans are housed in either of the County’s two adult detention facilities. For any number of reasons, some veterans have been hesitant to self-identify as such when incarcerated. Some veterans may not be aware of programs available to them, regardless of their discharge status. Some may not know that discharge statuses can be reevaluated. And, others – those who perhaps need it most – may not know that theirs may be one of the many municipalities taking extra steps to equip veterans with the knowledge, tools and opportunities necessary for successful rehabilitation.

King County has identified this gap, and has embraced proactive measures to engage with and identify veterans as early as possible during their detention. “We’re finding more and more veterans,” said King County Councilmember Reagan Dunn, a strong supporter of the program. And, in addition to unique challenges, those veterans have unique characteristics, adds the councilmember, “they have common training, they have common experience, there’s camaraderie.”

The County leveraged those unique characteristics by housing the pilot program’s participants together at MRJC. Close to 80 participants have joined the program since its launch. In addition to an orientation, initial programming offerings included a writing course that empowers individuals to change the course of their personal journey, a stress reduction and relaxation program, and a class focused on veteran civil legal needs. Four additional programs have now been added including Yoga Behind Bars and a military values class.

The results have been very positive for participating veterans and offer a blueprint for other jurisdictions wanting to improve outcomes for incarcerated veterans.

“We think it’s a very good program,” said Councilmember Dunn, “and a model for what we should be doing around the United States.”

The program receives strong support from DAJD and DCHS leadership and staff, many of whom are veterans themselves.

“I cannot say enough about the commitment of the department’s staff and others involved in making this program a success, said Director William Hayes, Department of Adult and Juvenile Detention. “We have a responsibility in helping those who are dealing with the trauma of war. Many of the involved staff are veterans, and they were invested from the beginning in helping those in our care.”

Their investments are paying off. Meet Joe.

Jo Coniff is an entrepreneur with his partner and girlfriend of almost 10 years, Robyn. Together they own Kale Love.

Joseph Conniff served in the Navy as an ordnance technician aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. Harry S. Truman (CVN 75). He completed two successful six-month deployments to the Middle East, but was discharged in 2005 after testing positive for use of a controlled substance. From there, his challenges mounted, including a period of time living on the streets of Seattle before being arrested and booked into the Norm Maleng Regional Justice Center in May 2015.

Joe identified as a veteran and participated in the new program. He felt the sense of comradery and appreciated the new ‘crowd’ he was now associating with. It made a difference for him. He also took advantage of the opportunities available through the program. Among those, some of the most meaningful to him were the Hero’s Journey writing workshops, the New Horizons support in removing barriers, and the weekly meditation and yoga. Joe found meditation and yoga to be his keys to staying focused on his big picture. Focus can be challenging for anyone in such an environment. When you add factors like possible Post Traumatic Stress and a veteran’s natural instinct to maintain awareness of their surroundings, it can be nearly impossible for someone like Joe to be able to just sit still and resist the urge to be continuously looking over their shoulder. The mindfulness exercises helped him work through some of his memories and adjust some of his thought patterns; very important parts of the process for him during his personal journey.

The support network continued when Joe was released. He participated in the County’s Drug Diversion Court program, which prioritizes treatment over incarceration – combining the resources of the criminal justice system, substance abuse treatment and other community service providers to empower participants to rebuild their lives. In addition to initially getting a backpack and some clothes to put in it through Councilmember Dunn’s program, he secured a bed at the Salvation Army’s William Booth Center and took advantage of the services offered to veterans in an office just above the Center. As part of his diversion agreement, Joe completed drug court, completed community service hours through Recovery Café, received free yoga instructor training, and has been teaching yoga classes.

Kale Love brings locally sourced, small batch kale chips to numerous Seattle farmers markets and more than 15 retail locations throughout the greater Seattle/Tacoma area.

He has also become an entrepreneur with his partner and girlfriend of almost 10 years, Robyn. In addition to Joe celebrating two years of sobriety in May, he and Robyn will also celebrate two years since she founded Kale Love as an LLC here in Seattle. In April of last year, Robyn and Joe took their tax refunds and went all in. Now, the two of them and their six-year-old daughter are a self-described “family of three often on the go” bringing their locally sourced, small batch kale chips to numerous Seattle farmers markets and more than 15 retail locations throughout the greater Seattle/Tacoma area.

Joe, with the support of his family, is an example of how incarcerated veterans can leverage the resources available to them while detained in King County facilities to make the most of a difficult and challenging time. “Without the Incarcerated Vets Program and KC Drug Court, the business, the opportunity to show up for my family, and – most of all – showing up for myself, would not have been possible,” said Joe. “The Vets program is something I feel every county and state could learn from. Implementation of the program elsewhere can become a reality as well as a success.”

Joe says he is still in contact with a few others who went through the program with him, and that each of them are still doing well. When asked if there were any improvements that could be made, Joe shared that he wished more could happen before the point of incarceration. “It would be great to identify veterans where they are on the streets, before they end up in jail,” said Joe. “If we could find out where veterans end up after their deployments and connect them with the services they could use. That would get us even closer to a solution.”