While waiting to catch a flight, Malik Muhammad mapped out an idea he had on a napkin.
Muhammad, who at the time held the title of lieutenant at Orange County Corrections Department (OCCD), had just returned from a deployment where he had been stationed in Cobbadder, Iraq. While he was physically back on American soil, his thoughts remained with his fellow service men and women still overseas. Today, Muhammad now holds the rank of Captain at Orange County Corrections and is an E7/Sergeant First Class with the Unit 873rd Quarter Master Company out of West Palm Beach with the Army Reserves. He knows first-hand the challenges of war.
Public safety agencies, including the Orange County Corrections Department, (OCCD) remain a leading employer of veterans and reservists. OCCD is one of the largest jails in the nation. On any given day, it can be home to some of the most dangerous criminals. It can also be home to handful of veterans who have unfortunately become incarcerated.
Muhammad had a vision, but his plan wasn’t focused as much on the veterans he works alongside, but rather the inmates he and his team are charged to oversee. His vision was a specialized “dorm” within the jail, similar to programs usually offered at prisons or state facilities. In the right environment, correctional officers along with program staff, mental health providers and other professionals could work to help an incarcerated veteran see themselves as that individual who once held the respect of their peers and the nation for their service to their country.
The Captain’s mindset wasn’t to overlook or excuse crimes committed by veterans because of their past service. In contrast, the Captain feels strongly that all inmates, veteran or not, must take responsibility for their own actions. While these veterans have made mistakes, OCCD will not give up on them. Through screening, the classification team at OCCD reviews an inmate’s request and background before they are transferred to the veterans’ dorm. Requirements include an honorable discharge from the service, the transfer must be voluntary and the inmate must remain free of negative disciplinary actions.
“At some point in their lives, they were successful. They served their country,” Captain Muhammad said. “My hope is that after repaying their debt to society, they return as productive and healthy citizens.”
The environment of the veterans’ dorm is different. Traditional plain white walls have been replaced with military insignia hand-painted by a former resident. While the dorm is a specialized program, veteran inmates are still expected to follow a strict regimen of classes aimed at rehabilitation and reintegration including dealing with anger management and substance abuse.
While the dorm is only in its first years, a recent partnership with the University of Central Florida, which focuses on post-traumatic stress disorder, now serves as a next step for some veterans upon release. It’s a healthy partnership considering the majority of these veterans are charged with crimes associated with addiction, poverty and anger management. While not all inmates are post-deployment, many have experienced traumatic episodes in the past. In one snapshot, the program found that the inmates collectively had seen deployments from Vietnam, Desert Storm, the Gulf War, Operation Enduring Freedom, the Colombian conflict and even Lebanon.
“This is an expansion to the Orange County Corrections Inmate Programs Unit, brought to fruition by one of our very own military officers wanting to make a difference,” Chief of Corrections Cornita Riley said. “We are proud of his work, as well as the program and mental health teams and correctional officers working in the dorm. It’s a true example of what is possible when you believe in your people.”
To learn more about the program, watch WKMG – Local 6 Orlando’s news feature on the program.