There’s a section of the King County jail where veterans get special attention in a program designed to help them overcome addiction, PTSD, homelessness and unemployment.
The goal is to keep vets, who have unique needs, off the streets and out of jail.
“I don’t know where I would be without it,” said Joe Conniff, a Navy veteran who once hustled heroin on the streets of Seattle.
He’s now rebuilding his life and growing a new snack business he recently started with his girlfriend, Robyn Thompson.
Washington’s finest, organically grown, kale is seasoned, dried, packed into boxes, and sold at local farmers markets under the label Kale Love.
“We source all of our stuff locally, as fresh as possible,” Conniff said.
The green is helping fuel Conniff’s comeback after a long struggle with drugs, a failed career in the Navy, and eventually, homelessness.
“I can actually sleep at night, and that’s something I wasn’t able to do for a long time,” he said.
Conniff used to work as an ordnance technician aboard the USS Harry Truman aircraft carrier. He went on two six-month tours of duty, but torpedoed his Navy career in 2005 when he tested positive for cocaine. He drifted, eventually to the streets, and then to the Norm Maleng Regional Justice Center, after he was caught dealing heroin with an undercover police officer.
In jail, he participated in a unique program, one of only a handful nationwide, which treats veteran inmates like Conniff differently than the others.
Vets are kept together in the same unit and attend classes that help them manage stress, overcome PTSD and set personal goals. When it comes time for them to leave, they’re connected with veterans housing and employment programs.
“We’re finding more and more veterans coming into the jail system in King County,” said King Co. Council member Reagan Dunn, who helped start the veterans program in 2014. Since then, it’s assisted more than 50 incarcerated vets and helped them transition back into the community.
“They have common training, they have common experience, there’s camaraderie,” explained Dunn.
There’s a daily debrief, where inmates discuss PTSD triggers. The program also connects vets with case managers who know how to navigate the VA, where they can get mental health and addiction treatment.
For Conniff, the most beneficial parts of the incarcerated vets program were the weekly yoga and meditation classes. The techniques helped him focus on his priorities as he left jail and transitioned to a veterans program at a Salvation Army shelter.
In September he graduated from King County drug court, a program that prioritizes treatment over incarceration.
“God, I put you guys through so much crap, and to have you guys here today at this is pretty incredible,” Conniff told his family during the graduation ceremony.
According to stats, the King County approach is working. More than 50% of incarcerated veterans who don’t participate in the program eventually end up back in custody. When they participate in the vet program, that figure drops to about 14%.
“The pain was just too great, like I couldn’t do it anymore, I was just exhausted,” Conniff said.
He’s now reconnecting with his five-year-old daughter and staying busy with his new kale chip business, which has stands at several Seattle-area farmers markets.
“I’m definitely not perfect, by any means, but things have gotten a lot better than they were, and this has honestly been the best 15 months of my life,” Conniff said.