Walton County, Florida, is known for its pristine beaches, emerald waters, and of course, 30A. It’s a beacon for affluent tourists from all over the world. It’s also the epicenter of Walton County jail’s innovative programming which is changing the lives of thousands of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated Floridians.

As I recently drove down the long driveway to the sheriff’s office, I looked over to my left to see several inmates tending to a field of vegetables. As I continued down the road, I saw a large bulldozer and a semi-truck with trailer, both of which were emblazoned with a large five-point Walton County Sheriff star.

As I entered the jail, I met with Deann Bertram, Programs Manager, and as we sat in her office, I told her that I was very interested in the CDL and heavy equipment operator training. For over a decade, the Walton County jail has been a leader in providing opportunities to inmates to learn skills and train at the county jail to break the cycles of recidivism and find gainful employment when they are released.

Ms. Bertram told me that when Sheriff Michael Adkinson assumed office, he prioritized training and programming for inmates. Sheriff Adkinson started his career as a probation officer with the state prior to transitioning into law enforcement. I told Ms. Bertram about my recent ride-along and the power of probation officers for successful reentry.

Sheriff Adkinson spoke to my academy class back in 2011 and told us that law enforcement is a customer service profession. Ms. Bertram said that philosophy permeates through the entire department and with the people they hire.

Ms. Bertram told me that of everyone she looks at hiring, she asks very specific questions. She doesn’t focus on technical questions regarding the job because she can train people to do a job.  Instead, she wants people who want to be helpful to those they serve. As she read me each question in the interview process, I understood how the right hire can positively impact the lives of others.

At first, the Walton County Sheriff’s Office started a welding program for inmates, but the agency quickly realized the opportunities for jobs in the local community were limited.  The jail then transitioned to providing training on CDL training (7 weeks) and heavy equipment training (6 weeks) which offered many opportunities for those who complete training to find employment with local businesses.

The sheriff’s office worked with local employers to assist graduates with job opportunities following incarceration. Approximately 40 individuals graduate from these courses each year with certifications needed for employment. Additionally, the Walton County Sheriff’s Office serves as a regional programming hub as many of the surrounding counties and sheriff’s offices are invited to send their inmates to participate in the training.

Another innovative program is Residential Substance Abuse Treatment (RSAT) which provides a 90-day treatment protocol by providing education on the harmful impacts of substance abuse. The funding for this program is provided through a Substance Abuse grant and graduates around 40 inmates each year.

Currently, Florida State University (Go Noles!) is conducting a study to determine the recidivism rate of participants in all the programs offered by the Walton County Sheriff’s Office. While the concept of local programming in a county jail is not new, the path the Walton County Sheriff’s Office is taking is trailblazing.  Several Florida agencies have reached out to Ms. Bertram to learn more about how they can implement similar programs inside their jails.

Community based and solution-oriented programs serve to help individuals as they are being held accountable for their actions while also offering an opportunity to rehabilitate their lives and reintegrate into our communities.

By offering this programming early, the goal is to keep these individuals with new skills and job opportunities and prevent them from entering the cycle of recidivism. Over the next several months, I will be highlighting some of the local programs that are being used to keep their communities safe throughout Florida.