Waco: New jail program readies inmates for work to stay out of trouble

Published: Feb. 14, 2020 at 11:10 PM CST
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Trading striped jumpsuits for suits and ties, McLennan County Jail officials believe getting inmates behind a desk will keep them from getting back behind bars.

"We want to help inmates so when they return to the world, they'll be a contributing citizen to our county," said Maj. Ricky Armstrong, McLennan County Jail Administrator. "The goal is to try to break the cycle."

According to the U.S. Department of Justice, more than 80 percent of state prisoners will be re-arrested in less than nine years.

Frankie Rivera has been in and out of incarceration for drugs for most of his life.

"A lot of alcohol, drinking and partying just led me to do the same things," said Rivers.

The McLennan County inmate from the south side of Waco says he's lived a rough life, first getting into trouble when he stole from a store at age eleven.

Now 40, he has seven kids, age ten to 24, and seven grandkids, and he wants to be better for them.

"I'm hoping that they really see the change that I've made and that inspires them to do the right things and live a better life than what I've lived," said Rivera.

Rivera, who says he's been sober for eight months during incarceration, is using his latest jail stay to try to clean himself up and finally fight for his future by entering the McLennan County Jail Reintegration Program.

"It's either change or lose what matters to me most," he said.

The program, which already included AA, NA, and anger management classes, now includes a work-readiness certification program.

Rivera, along with ten other inmates, graduated Thursday.

"One of the participants said 'I never graduated, I never completed anything,' and so today he received a certificate," said Alfornette Timms, a success coach with Heart of Texas Goodwill.

The work-ready program is a partnership between the jail, McLennan Community College, Heart of Texas Goodwill and MHMR.

The six-week program is the first since the jail took control of the Jack Harwell Detention Center in October.

"The huge goal for when we moved into here was to utilize the classrooms we have in here for more programs," said Armstrong.

Armstrong says he's wanted to offer the class on a regular basis ever since they did a pilot program with MCC three years ago.

"It was one of the first reintegration programs we had," said Armstrong. "After we moved into the new facility, we reached out to Goodwill to see if they could get the program going on a constant basis."

During the course, inmates meet twice a week to learn how to get a job, and keep a job.

"It's an introduction to workplace skills with a curriculum focused on dependability, honesty, integrity, reliability, positive attitude, respect, commitment to improve and interest in working," said Timms. "Our mission is to facility change through work opportunities."

Timms said they use roll-playing and scenarios about what they would face on a typical day in the workplace.

"We teach them, you may face challenges but you know that you can make a difference, and you can make it better," said Timms. "The end goal is for them to be productive in the community and make that change and that impact in the community."

Rivera praised the program.

"It's really a lot of tools that they're giving us to help us out there," said Rivera. "I think the main one is the resumes and learning how to approach and respect the employers."

He said used to be a forklift driver but had trouble keeping a job.

"I mean, I would argue with my wife and say 'the heck with the job' and just wouldn't go back," said Rivera.

He says his wife has been forced to support their family while during his jail stays.

"She's finally getting tired of it, too," said Rivera. "This program's given me the will to change, the 'want' to change the lifestyle I've been living."

During the graduation ceremony, Armstrong had a message for the inmates.

"A lot of them wanted to thank me for holding the class--I told them the best way they could thank me was get out, get a job, and not come back to jail," said Armstrong.

Rivera says that's the plan if he gets out of jail: he goes to trial on a family violence charge Feb. 24.

"Wherever God takes me, that's where I'm going," he said.

The jail is scheduled to start it's first work-ready program for female inmates in two weeks.

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