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MILTON — Saratoga County Sheriff Michael Zurlo is hoping some new accommodations and programs at his county jail can help veterans and opioid abusers avoid repeat trips behind bars.

Zurlo’s staff has created a new 31-cell pod in the jail that will house only inmates who are veterans and opioid addicts who are being medically treated, believing that the pod’s setup and assistance programs will allow them to get the help they need to improve their lives and avoid trouble with the law.

“The whole goal of this is to provide services when they are here so they don’t come back once they are released,” Zurlo said Friday as the jail facilities were shown to local news media.

The program brings together the Sheriff’s Office, Prevention Council of Saratoga County, county Mental Health Clinic and the county Veterans Services Agency to not only help inmates with the problems that resulted in their crimes, such as addiction or mental health problems, but also prepare them for life outside the walls when they are released.

Albany County recently unveiled a similar program.

A former inmate is a key component of the program. Ben Deeb started as a volunteer who was helping families of inmates and turned his assistance into a job with the Sheriff’s Office providing counseling at the jail. He has since been hired by the Prevention Council as “peer educator,” imparting the knowledge of what allowed him to straighten his life out to those who are behind bars.

A large, heavily tattooed man with a long goatee, Deeb commands respect, and he said his experiences, both positive and negative, help him relate to inmates and their families.

“We can form bonds and talk about where I’ve been,” he said. “I understand exactly where they have been.”

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Sheriff’s Col. Richard Emery, the jail’s administrator, said Zurlo asked him shortly after taking office in 2014 to try to find ways to provide better assistance to veterans who wind up in jail. That has involved more counseling and the assignment of sheriff’s Lt. Ray Rodriguez, a correction officer who is veteran, to help work with them.

Rodriguez will oversee the new program as well. He said the jail pod will be an honors block of sorts, with non-violent inmates vetted thoroughly to determine whether they are right for the program. Veterans form bonds, and the camaraderie (as well as assistance from veterans outside the jail) can help them turn their lives around.

“They hold themselves to a higher standard,” Rodriguez said. “It’s almost like a group home-type setting. They have to hold themselves accountable to stay in this unit.”

Frank McClement, director of the county Veterans Services Agency, said part of the program will also include assistance from veterans agencies, such as the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, to make sure the veteran inmates get the assistance that their military service earned them.

The addicts who will be allowed to stay in the pod will be part of the “medically assisted treatment” program participants who are prescribed drugs such as methadone or Suboxone to help wean them off opioids. Having them in a separate pod from the general population will hopefully cut down on the amount of drug contraband that inmates can get, officials said.

The hope is that the addicted inmates can develop bonds with the veterans and learn from them, Zurlo said.

Zurlo said inmates will move into the new pod by the end of the month. Renovations to the jail to open up more space in the jail pod cost about $250,000, with a wall knocked down to open up more space. The 260-bed jail had 177 inmates as of Friday, and being well below capacity on average allowed the space to be freed up for the new pod.

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Don Lehman covers police and court matters and Warren County government. He can be reached at 518-742-3224 or dlehman@poststar.com

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reporter - crimes & courts, public safety and Warren County government

Don Lehman covers crime and Warren County government for The Post-Star. His work can be found on Twitter @PS_CrimeCourts and on poststar.com/app/blogs.

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