FLAGLER COUNTY, Florida. – Of all inmates entering the Flagler County Jail, 80 percent have substance abuse and/or mental health issues, according to Flagler County Sheriff Rick Staly.

So in March, after receiving a federal grant of nearly $600,000, Staly converted two sections of the prison to begin helping inmates with their addictions — 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 SMART – Successful Mental Health Addiction Recovery Treatment.

“I committed a crime at Saint Mary’s Catholic Church,” Wilburn said.

Sitting in a classroom at the back of the Flagler County Jail, fighting back tears, Wilburn explained that she stole a church donation bag while high. Still.

“I was 8 when I got addicted and it was alcohol,” Wilburn said. “I’ve been in and out of correctional facilities all my life. I’m 52 and have been incarcerated for a good 27 years. What makes this time different? I’ll try not to cry. ..”

Wilburn then hung her head in her hands and sobbed.

Through tears, she said SMART is what’s different this time.

[RELATED: How to get mental health help in Central Florida]

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Prison inmates who are drug or alcohol addicts live together and recover together. For 12 weeks, they spend every day, all day, with each other and with their advisers.

This is the first time substance abuse has been addressed inside the Flagler County Jail, Staly said.

“If you don’t address the addiction issue or the mental health issue or the combination of the two, they’re going to leave prison and eventually come back,” Staly said.

Staly estimated that half of all inmates who struggle with addiction return.

So he hired new prison chief Dan Engert to break the cycle.

Engert showed News 6 the dedicated, isolated pods aimed entirely at drug addicts.

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

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

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

On his 14th booking at Flagler County Jail, inmate Joey Samuels agreed to participate in the SMART program.

“I know too many people who do drugs,” Samuels said. “I’ve always been sociable, but that’s my social group.”

Samuels said his two brothers were also locked up, as was his father – in the same prison.

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

Wilburn said the SMART program was the first time she had received counseling and treatment in prison and a chance to fend off the lure of relapse when she was released.

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

The 28 inmates enrolled in SMART will graduate this month and then continue to receive program support. SMART counselors also verify where inmates will live once they are released, whether it is a treatment center, with supportive family members or even a sober living house.

Samuels said he had already committed to a 30-day residential rehabilitation center when he was released, as he could not return home to the environment that had brought him back to prison more than a year. dozen times.

Staly is also using federal grant money to hire a counselor to do counseling outside of prison. Once the inmate is released, the counselor will monitor them for 18 weeks, providing outside support, in some cases for the very first time.

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Counselors come from St. Augustine-based Epic Behavioral Healthcare and Bunnell-based Flagler Open Arms Recovery Services.

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