Flagler County jail program helps inmates dealing with addiction, mental health issues

Jail now deals with addiction for first time ever

FLAGLER COUNTY, Fla. – Of all inmates coming into the Flagler County jail, 80% are suffering from addiction and/or mental health issues, according to Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly.

So in March, after receiving a federal grant for almost $600,000, Staly converted two sections of the jail to begin helping inmates with their addiction — if they agree to take the help.

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Inmate Michelle Wilburn is one of the first to be admitted into the program called S.M.A.R.T. — Successful Mental health Addiction Recovery Treatment.

“I committed a felony on Saint Mary’s Catholic Church,” Wilburn said.

Sitting in a classroom deep inside the Flagler County jail, fighting back tears, Wilburn explained she stole a donation bag from the church while she was high. Yet again.

“I was 8 years of age when I first became addicted and that was alcohol,” Wilburn said. “I have been in and out of jail institutions my whole life. I’m 52 years of age and I’ve been incarcerated a good 27 years of that. What makes this time different? I’m going to try not to cry...”

Wilburn then hung her head in her hands and sobbed.

Through the tears, she said S.M.A.R.T. is what’s different this time.

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Inmates at the jail who are addicted to drugs or alcohol live together and recover together. For 12 weeks, they spend every day, all day, with each other and their counselors.

It’s the first time addiction has ever been addressed inside the Flagler County jail, Staly said.

“If you’re not treating the addiction issue or the mental health issue or the combination of both, they’re going to leave the jail and eventually come back,” Staly said.

Staly estimated half of all inmates struggling with addiction do come back.

So he hired new jail Chief Dan Engert to break the cycle.

Engert showed News 6 the dedicated, isolated pods entirely for addicts.

“They’re all eating, breathing and sleeping recovery,” Engert said. “It’s full-time Monday through Friday counseling.”

The all-male and all-female pods are led by certified counselors and recovering addicts, known as peer recovery specialists, like Emil Coran.

“If you want to know more about my story, I was basically just like these guys,” Coran said. “Homeless, chronically homeless for 7 years, a heroin addict living on the streets. Life of crime. I just celebrated 3 years in recovery May 26.”

On his 14th booking into the Flagler County jail, inmate Joey Samuels agreed to enter the S.M.A.R.T. program.

“I know too many people on drugs,” Samuels said. “I’ve always been kind of social but it’s my social group.”

Samuels said his two brothers are also locked up and so is his dad — at the same jail.

“It’s the first time out of 14 times I’m really tired of coming here,” Samuels said. “Being in this program the biggest thing is the support. I’ve never had so many people sitting in one room supporting my sobriety, recovery or absence away from my own county.”

Wilburn said the S.M.A.R.T. program is the first time she’s ever gotten counseling and treatment in jail and a chance at fending off the lure of relapsing when she is released.

“I know beyond a shadow of a doubt it will be different,” Wilburn said. “Because something has changed within me that I didn’t recognize before.”

The 28 inmates enrolled in S.M.A.R.T. will graduate this month and then will continue to receive support from the program. S.M.A.R.T. counselors are also checking out where the inmates will live once they are released, whether it’s a treatment facility, with supportive family members or even a sober living house.

Samuels said he’s already committed to a 30-day live-in rehab facility when he is released because he cannot return home to the environment that’s led him back to the jail more than a dozen times.

Staly is also using the federal grant money to hire a counselor to do counseling outside of the jail. After the inmate is released, the counselor will check on him or her for 18 weeks, providing support on the outside, in some cases for the first time ever.

The counselors come from Epic Behavioral Healthcare based in St. Augustine and Flagler Open Arms Recovery Services based in Bunnell.

About the Author:

Erik von Ancken anchors and reports for News 6 and is a two-time Emmy award-winning journalist in the prestigious and coveted "On-Camera Talent" categories for both anchoring and reporting.