SEMINOLE COUNTY, Fla. – Inmates arrested for drug-related crimes are leaving the Seminole County jail free of their addiction and going directly to a long-term rehabilitation facility.
They are getting intensive day-long counseling and, if they need it, medication to get over the addiction. The recovering addicts live together in a large open room inside the jail with murals painted on the walls and without bars.
It's known as "O-pod," an area specifically designated for inmates addicted to or involved with opioids.
Seminole County Sheriff Dennis Lemma said no one else in Florida is doing anything like it.
"It's being smart about this. We know that relapse is a part of addiction," Lemma said. "And I think as sheriff, people have an expectation that I will try and fix what's broken with people on the inside."
More and more Seminole County judges are ordering inmates struggling with opioids into O-pod.
Inmates meet with counselors all day for their groups, which are meetings in which they discuss everything from parenting to finances to drug use.
They are encouraged to participate in yoga in the recreation room and are allowed to use their creative talents to paint murals on the walls.
"We're not running a Club Med. It is very, very difficult," Lemma said. "It is a heck of a lot easier to clean up your cell block and play cards and games all day long."
Lemma said one of the most important components of O-pod is the direct connection to a long-term rehabilitation facility.
Officers and counselors help inmates with their applications for clinics around Central Florida and ensure that an inmate will be accepted before he or she is released.
"I think we have to have a warm hand-off from when somebody's incarcerated to the services that are available to them on the outside," Lemma said. "Quite frankly, there are not enough services on the outside, which is something we're working on as a state and a community. This is new, uncharted territory, but from the feedback we're getting, it works."
Josh Guckenberger was a former tattoo artist and remanded to O-pod earlier this year.
He had been to prison four times and arrested countless times mostly over drugs. Most recently he was caught with fentanyl.
"Luckily I went to jail because that was the only way I was gonna stop," Guckenberger said. "I came to terms that I don't want to die yet, and I could have a better life."
Before his arrest, Guckenberger overdosed twice back-to-back and was revived with Narcan by his girlfriend.
"She told me the driver and the passenger, they got scared, they were young, they had a dead body in the back, and they were going to throw me on the side of the road and leave," Guckenberger said.
Guckenberger said as soon as he was released from jails and prisons in the past, he'd go right back to a life of drugs and crime to support his drug habit.
"You don't have to worry about anything in jail; everything is taken care of for you," Guckeberger said.
"When you get out, that's the hard problem. You can't work a regular job and function while you're on drugs. So when you lose a job, lose your house, lose everything you got, you go back to being at the bottom of the bottom, you gotta steal stuff so you can support your habit."
Guckenberger graduated from O-pod three months ago and went directly to Space Coast Recovery. He stays there at night and works building floating spill-containment booms in Cocoa during the day.
Guckberger said he moved to Brevard County to change everything about his life, especially the people with whom he hangs around.
"It's going good," Guckenberger said. "Best I've ever done in my life."
Guckberger said he will stay at Space Coast Recovery for at least the next six months and after that will continue his regular daily Narcotics Anonymous meetings. He pays $500 per month for his stay.
One day he'd like to open his own rehab facility.
"Follow through, stick to the plan, build a network with people who can support me and help me," Guckenberger said.
Sheriff Lemma said eight out of 10 O-pod graduates keep in touch after their release, whereas most addicts released from the general population cannot be found.
"Never in my nearly 28 years at the Sheriff's Office have we had inmates petition the judge to extend their sentence because they're getting clean, and that has happened three times in the past few months," Lemma said.
O-pod was started earlier this year. Lemma said he will analyze statistics and research and see how the program can be adjusted, if necessary.