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S.F. Sheriff's Dept. aims to heal veterans' wounded spirits behind bars

For many military veterans, the transition to peace-time living is a tumultuous one. They discover the survival instincts and trip-wire reflexes they developed in the warzone are ill-suited for life in the civilian world.

The inability to leave the battlefield behind is landing growing numbers of vets behind bars, a problem that is leading law enforcement agencies around the country to look for new ways of assimilating the current wave of spiritually battered warriors.

Among the promising approaches to reduce recidivism among vets is the COVER Project at the San Francisco County Jail in San Bruno, Calif.

COVER -- Community of Veterans Engaged in Restoration -- was created in 2010 by the San Francisco Sheriff's Department to help veterans develop a new approach to life when their sentences are up.

Most veterans behind bars are there because of  violence or drug- related offenses, according to Sunny Schwartz, the program administrator. In 2004, the most recent data available, the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics found that 57 percent of veterans in state prisons were serving time for violent offenses, with 22 percent doing time for drug-related offenses.

The project recognizes the unique needs of veterans, said Schwartz, which is why it provides services for them in a separate unit of the jail, away from the general inmate population.

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Upon entering the San Francisco jail system, veteran inmates are directed to the COVER Project's “pod” at the San Bruno Jail, where a variety of counseling programs are available. Some are aimed at building accountability and changing violent behaviors, while others concentrate on treating PTSD.

“They are addicted to a certain male role model, one that solves problems with violence and acts instinctively without considering the consequences,” said Sheriff’s Capt. Kevin Paulson, the San Bruno facility commander. “We are trying to change that and offer a new way of thinking.”

The “Man Alive” counseling program is one of many offered in the pod. It demands that the inmates acknowledge their violent behavior before the start of each class, then analyze past incidents with an instructor, who is usually an ex-convict and veteran himself.

Among the veterans in “Man Alive” is Aarin Ivans, a 38-year-old Marine who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ivans, who has been in the COVER Project for the last few months, said he appreciates the new tools that he has obtained to help him act differently once he is released from jail.

"I never really had an opportunity to identify with the way other people feel -- the way they act toward their feelings and emotions," Ivans said. "I don't know that stuff."

Ida McCray, manager of the COVER Project, said that in addition to helping veterans stay out of jail once they are released, the nation needs to do a better job keeping them from being incarcerated in the first place.

“There is much more that we can do,” she said. “… We all, as a community, should make a much better effort in prevention, understanding, and helping veterans to stay out of jail.”

"Who would you rather come back to your neighborhood," Schwartz asked, "a man who has been spending eight hours a day to learn how to stop his violence, or someone who is sitting in his cell with all the time in the world to learn how to be a better criminal?"

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