Prison program helps veterans re-enter community

Photo by Romi White

Dave Murzin, left, legislative assistant for Florida Senator Greg Evers, discusses courses offered for veterans with inmate Robert Dawson, who teaches a business class for fellow inmates.


By Romi White

Santa Rosa Correctional Institute in East Milton functions as its own community. Behind the prison’s electrified fences, one dormitory has been designated specifically for veterans. Special programs are offered inside the dorm and aimed to help veterans re-enter the outside world.

“It’s kinda like a small city. Everybody has a job,” said Warden Richard Comerford, adding, “Everybody’s job is important.” Inmate Robert Dawson’s task is teaching a small business classes to fellow veterans.

“I can teach these guys about basic business,” noted Dawson, who will be released in December. During a Sept. 24 tour of the facility, Dawson explained details about some of the 27 courses offered to the dorm’s 48 residents by volunteers and fellow inmates, leading up to release.

One year prior to release veterans are offered courses on topics such as developing re-entry plans. 6 months before release they are provided classes on probation, addiction recovery and other useful topics.

The veterans voluntarily participate in enriching courses, such as personal finance or English/Spanish. Some of the classes are designed for personal growth, such as marriage enrichment. Other courses teach practical skills, such as creating a resume, which will help the veterans find jobs following incarceration.

Garry Nelson with EscaRosa Career Development Center comes out to the prison twice a month to teach classes. Nelson says efforts inside dorm help break down barriers to post-incarceration employment.

Ed McCants works for Santa Rosa County Veteran’s Services and volunteers in the dorm, assisting veterans in the completion of paperwork to ensure benefits start back once they are released. Other volunteers teach courses on domestic violence and conflict resolution in an effort to curb recidivism.

Comerford attributes much credit to the prison’s volunteers, who spent nearly 2,400 hours inside its gates from January to July. He also praises the integrity of veterans serving in the dorm, noting how they developed their own mission statement. They pledged to move forward, never quit or accept defeat, restore values and develop new skills for a successful transition into society.

Initially 22 inmates participated in the veterans’ program. Now there are two wings designated for veterans, and a waiting list of 90 inmates seeking to be housed within the dorm. “We’re saying it’s a success,” said Comerford.

Around 7,000 of the state’s 100,000 prisoners are military veterans. Nearly 33,000 inmates were released from Florida prisons in fiscal year 2013-2014.

Read more in the Oct. 9 issue of the Navarre Press or subscribe online here.

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