Hillsborough jail dedicates pod for incarcerated veterans

With symbols of service and words of encouragement from our nation's greatest leaders, the Hillsborough County Sheriff's Office's wants to put veteran inmates back on the right path.

"We want to make sure they have the tools, the training they need, so when they do leave here, they're able to integrate back into society more efficiently," said Sheriff Chad Chronister.

Nearly three dozen inmates who are military veterans enrolled in HCSO's veteran's housing unit at the Falkenburg Jail.

The program will give the vets access to VA services, medical care, and education.

"They're housed in a pod that's specifically designated for other veterans," Chronister said. "So they're able to spend time with, hang out, and even go to group therapy with individuals who share the same experiences as they've been through."

Of the 3,000 inmates in the county's jail system, close to 65 are veterans. Inmate Johnny Garcia, a Gulf War veteran serving time for dealing in stolen property and grand theft, says it offers some light at the end of the tunnel.

"The tools that are provided with this program are something I am going to take advantage of," Garcia said. "These are tools to help you in every aspect of life, whether it's financial management, counseling, VA reps for health. I feel blessed to have these opportunities."

Garcia served during Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm from 1990 to 1994 and says if he could do it over again, he would in a heartbeat.

"It is a camaraderie that doesn't leave you, it never leaves you," he said.

Sheriff Chronister says all the inmates need is a desire to improve themselves, something evident in Garcia's mentality.

"I already know this is my first time seeing the inside of the jail, and absolutely will be the last time I see this," Garcia said. "With this program, I know I’m going to have the help that I need to get that mission successfully completed."

Hillsborough isn't the first county to roll out a veteran inmate housing program. Pasco County officials unveiled theirs in 2014, and Sarasota County launched one back in June of this year.