Incarcerated veterans in Deschutes County are now connecting with social workers while still behind bars. A new pilot program is the first of its kind in all of Oregon, and while the concept is simple, it's already having big impacts on locked-up veterans.
Faced with a growing number of veterans booked into the Deschutes County Jail, officialss wanted to get them help from the Veterans Health Administration.
"Mental health needs, housing needs, drug and dependency needs," Deschutes County sheriff's Lt. Scott Lutz said Wednesday.
But there was a big roadblock, Lutz says the VHA only has two clinical social workers who travel, and they're based out of Portland.
"They literally drive to all the jails to connect with veterans," Lutz said.
That meant the social workers only were able to connect with inmates in Bend about once a year. Earlier this month, an old webcam and computer were dusted off and put to good use.
"They can see you and you can see them -- it's one on one," Lutz said, showing the setup in the law library at the jail.
Now, every Tuesday, veterans can speak with a social worker more than 100 miles away. Lutz says it's much better than a phone call.
"It's a lot more personal, I think the veterans leave here feeling like they've received some type of service," Lutz said.
The pilot program already has sent one veteran on the path toward sobriety.
"He traditionally didn't want to deal with the VA because of all the roadblocks that he ran into," Lutz said. "But he was able to leave here with a really positive attitude and something to look forward to."
Lutz hopes the veteran never spends another night in a jail cell.
The program is free for veterans and the only reason other jails are not taking part is because of funding for the technology. Lutz says they were lucky enough to have the computer and webcam available.
If the program goes well, it may be expanded to other jails all over the Northwest.