Waco: Jail head tours Poland prison system as part of state delegation

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WACO, Texas (KWTX) The head of the McLennan County Jail is back on American soil after being asked to go to Poland to tour the prison system there.

McLennan County Jail Administrator, Capt. Ricky Armstrong (farthest right), tours a prison in Poland as part of jail delegation from Texas.

Capt. Ricky Armstrong was invited to be part of a six-member Texas jail delegation by the Correctional Management Institute of Texas (CMIT) at Sam Houston State University.

"It was an honor just to be asked," said the jail administrator. "The trip of a lifetime."

Armstrong was joined by CMIT Executive Director Doug Dretke, CMIT National Jail Leadership Command Academy Program Specialist Aimee Crocket, Franklin County Sheriff Gerald Yezak, Texas Dept. of Criminal Justice Probation Director Carey Green, and Walls Unit Warden Billy Lewis.

Armstrong, the 2nd Vice President of the Texas Jail Association, has worked in corrections for nearly three decades and is considered an expert on Texas' jail and prison system, teaching classes and training for years at CMIT.

"Captain Armstrong is simply the best of the best," said McLennan County Sheriff Parnell McNamara. "He's been recognized all across the state, he's also been recognized worldwide."

From the end of June through early July, the group met with Poland prison officials; some spoke English, however, Armstrong said they had two translators with them.

Over the course of ten days, they learned about how the prisons and jails there are run.

"Our jobs are very similar, we have some of the challenges--keeping staff, hiring staff, repeat offenders and how to deal with them and so forth," said Armstrong.

However, the programs Poland has to deal with their repeat offenders are different, says Armstrong.

"We're all watching inmates and making sure they're healthy and taken care of and serve their punishment and trying to see what we can do reintegrate them back into society and they're doing some of the same things, in fact, they're probably even doing some more things than we do."

For example, Armstrong says the country has a work industry program where inmates make minimum wage building furniture: 40% of their salary goes to sustain the prison program, the rest goes to the inmates' families to support them while they're in custody.

"They do a lot of therapeutic training, psychology training, hospice training, they do CMA (certified medical assistance) training, driving training--teaching inmates how to drive," said Armstrong. "They have music programs, they have video programs, they have concerts with inmates."

While not all of those programs are likely to fly in Texas and McLennan County, Armstrong says, he's hoping to incorporate some of them, especially CMA training, into his jail's reintegration programs in hopes of reducing recidivism.

"We're trying to learn from each other," said Armstrong.

Armstrong plans returning the favor by showing Poland prison officials how his jail is run when they come to Texas next year.

"Those of us that went on this trip, we get to plan their trip when they come back, so hopefully we'll get to have them in Waco, Texas," said Armstrong. "They'll get to come to our jail and see our jails and see how we do things here as well."

At least two things Texas is stricter on: The Texas Commission on Jail Standards requires Texas jails and prisons to do inmate headcounts every hour--in Poland, it's only every two hours, plus, their jails are much more "private" with just small peep holes, Armstrong says.

"What's unique about Poland, is their jails are run by the prison system, so it's a little bit different than the jails in Texas," said Armstrong. "The Prime Minister of Justice is over all the jails and prisons in Poland, and they have remand prisons--which is similar to a jail--it's where the arrestees go and the unsentenced go before they're sent to prison."

The trip wasn't all work: the group got to tour museums and old Orthodox churches during the visit.

"With WWII, Poland has a lot of history," said Armstrong. "Lots of history and we got to see some of that and it was really, really breathtaking."

A lot of history...and food.

"They fed us way too much, it was like a seven-course meal every time we ate!" said Armstrong.

He said the Polish couldn't ignore the cowboy hats.

"They asked if everybody wears (cowboy) hats and I said 'well, in our department they do,'" he chuckled.

The trip was not paid through the McLennan County Sheriff’s Office.

The flights were paid for by the CMIT and Poland’s prison system paid for room and board and meals.