Local jail inmates take a step toward turning their lives around

(Photo by Rissa Shaw)
(Photo by Rissa Shaw)(KWTX)
Published: Jul. 25, 2017 at 12:16 AM CDT
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Nine jail inmates took the next step in turning their lives around Monday night.

The McLennan County Jail hosted a graduation ceremony for nine inmates in the McLennan County Reintegration Program.

"I feel like it's something that I can be proud of, ya know what I mean, 'cuz it's a step towards a positive direction,” said graduating inmate Roger Nawara. “I don’t have to do it, I sincerely wanna do it.”

Of the nine “trustees” (well-behaving, low-risk inmates), Nawara graduated from the final phase of the in-jail portion of the program, the other eight were promoted to the next phase in their individual programs.

“I’m starting to learn to actually learn from my mistakes,” said Nawara. “It's taught me coping skills and how to interact with others, and just how to think differently ya know, how to not constantly think about drugs all the time."

Nawara, 31, of Waco, said he’s been in trouble with law for more than half of his life.

“I took this reintegration class jut to help me provide a path for when I try to get out and try to do some things differently than what I’ve done in the past, to help me become a better member, successful member of society and better father to my kids,” said Nawara.

The father of three teenage daughters said he wanted to be a better man for them, but also for himself.

“Right now I’m just trying to get through this time,” he said.

Nawara has three months left of a year-long jail sentence for credit card abuse.

“I’m a really good person, but in my life, I’ve always become really good at doing negative things,” he said.

He’s been sober for nine months, and said joining the program seven months ago was a big part of the reason why.

“Life's pretty fun without drugs actually,” said Nawara.

Jail officials called the program ‘life-changing.’

“We’re trying to help them from coming back to jail,” said Captain Ricky Armstrong, McLennan County jail administrator.

Part of the success, Armstrong said, was because inmates aren’t forced to participate, they volunteer, and are then screened by jail staff and clinicians to make sure they’re ready for the experience.

"We don’t' want anybody in here just to be in the program just to get out of their cell for a little while, but we want somebody that's sincere,” said Armstrong.

What they really don’t want, is for the inmates to come back to jail.

With each inmate costing $53-$55 per day, the jail is the county’s biggest expense.

Armstrong said the benefits have a domino effect.

"The more people we can help not come back to jail, then that helps our community because now they're productive citizens in our community, so they're out there with jobs, they're supporting their families, hopefully they're not on welfare anymore and receiving state funded money, and then that's gonna help our state, I just doesn't stop,” he said.

The program manager said reducing recidivism, breaking the pattern of a criminal’s tendency to offend again, helps everyone.

"If the individuals are cycling through over and over, it not only impacts the individuals, the jail, but also the community as a whole and their families, and so once we get them back on track, then they're able to be successful members of the society,” said Jamie Schmitt, Program Manager, McLennan County Reintegration Program.

The program helps inmates who have been in-and-out of jail and often struggling with substance abuse by providing services like counseling, substance abuse treatment, education, and job training including a six-week workforce training certification through McLennan Community College.

"Everybody knows somebody that has some type of problem, and so we want to be able to help those individuals,” said Schmitt. “With community support, we are able to have successful reintegration into our community.”

The help appears to be working: only one of the 67 program participants have “recidivated” (returned to jail) since the pilot program launched in November of 2016.

More than half of prisoners are rearrested within a year of their release, according to the National Institute of Justice.

“Our stats are higher than the national average at this time, and we’re really proud of our individuals who are participating in our program,” said Schmitt.

MCRP is created and initially funded through a partnership with McLennan County, the City of Waco, and the Heart of Texas Region Mental Health and Mental Retardation Center.

Recent grant funding has added to the program’s continuation.

“We truly have a recovery-oriented systems of care here in McLennan County and it’s not just from the individuals that we’re serving that believe in the program but also the city, the MCSO, as well as the MHMR program and so we’re able to offer complete wrap around services that really offer the support that the individuals need,” said Schmitt.

The program, which was in the works back in 2012, allows services to begin during incarceration, rather than waiting until release.

The inmates who participate in the six-part program receive support with employment, housing, education, social connection, and mental health and substance use disorder treatment, including Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous classes.

“They’re learning how to be better parents, better partners, better employees, and then they’re able to focus on their own recovery,” said Schmitt.

The pre-release part of the program has four phases, and provides individuals with the skills needed for successful reintegration, according to officials.

“Thank you for the hand up, not the handout,” said one inmate to the audience during Monday night’s ceremony.

Participants work on the final two phases once they’re released back into society and are no longer incarcerated.

“Most are employed, some we have to find housing for, transportation, some of them we even have to get clothing for so that they are able to be successful in the community,” said Schmitt.

Because of the initial success, the reintegration program will be expanding into other wings of the jail besides “F” wing, the trustee wing.

“It’s (only) been ten months, but we’re proud of that,” said Armstrong.

Officials said the program would be available to inmates in “E” wing when classroom walls finish going up sometime in August, with participants being approved on a case-by-case basis.

“Our parameters will change of who we are able to accept into the program,” said Schmitt.

Nawara said the program is proof there’s people in the community who are willing to help.

“When you’re living the life of the streets, there’s always a way to figure out to get what you want, so if you want sobriety, I feel like if you give it that much effort that you gave toward your negative life…there’s a whole new life out there," said Nawara.