The five wardens of the Rev. C.A. Holliday Unit had it easy.
It wasn’t that their job was inherently easy or that they were anywhere close to lazy. But all five said Tuesday that they were fortunate to work alongside experienced, self-motivated staffers.
This month marks the 20th year of operation for Huntsville’s Holliday Unit.. Current and former members of the jail’s staff gathered for a celebratory lunch Tuesday.
The unit was opened in January 1994 under then-warden Mickey Liles. He since retired from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice but remembers the unit starting with no food production facilities, no medical office and only half the number of prisoner dormitories.
“It was the employees that made it happen,” Liles said. “(Opening the unit) was a great team-building exercise. It was so cold and wet; we had to have a wrecker drag the chain bus in with the new inmates.”
Part of the success with the prison opening had to do with experienced employees transferring from other units.
“Ninety-plus of our employees came from units in Huntsville or around the state,” Liles said. “It was a hodgepodge of experience with lots of great ideas to pull from. All I had to do was let everybody pick up where everyone left off at their old unit.”
Liles remembered piloting one of the first tobacco-free facilities in the state’s prison system, which also passed through the employees with ease.
“It went smoothly because the employees were used to it because half the county jails were already nonsmoking,” he said. “The problem was that when (employees left) Holliday and went to other units because they weren’t nonsmoking yet.”
Liles also worked for the Beto and Ellis Units, as well as private correctional facilities. He now works as a consultant and lives in the Huntsville area.
Doug Dretke, now executive director of the Correctional Management Institute of Texas, took over for Liles in 1996. He also noted the atmosphere that the experienced employees created.
“They made my position incredibly easy,” Dretke said. “We helped them understand how critical their position was not only to the unit, but the state-at-large.”
He said the TDCJ administrators felt that Holliday was a good unit to receive feedback from employees, particularly because of the quality of staff.
“We actually allowed the staff to vote on going to a 12-hour workday,” he said, noting the shift from rotating 8-hour days piloted in Palestine. “They overwhelmingly voted for the change. It provided more opportunity for weekend days off.”
Dretke credits his predecessor for the no-nonsense work environment at Holliday.
“It all starts from day one with leadership,” Dretke said. “The group of staff and supervisors take ownership of opening the unit and shaping the operation. It has carried through in (the Holliday Unit’s) short history.”
Richard K. Watkins was warden at Holliday starting in 1997. He said they also made strides to increase diversity within the ranks. This included more female and minority correctional officers.
“The offenders and staff saw different people in different leadership positions,” he said. “It helped sometimes that people saw people that looked like they did.”
Watkins led the effort to name the facility after Rev. C. A. Holliday, a civil rights activist in the Huntsville area, which was later made official by then-Texas Gov. Ann Richards.
What Watkins remembers most fondly is the way the unit came together for things like planting a garden and supporting others in need.
“We had a female correctional officer who lost her daughter in a car accident and the other officers came in a surrounded her with support,” Watkins said. “She got back up on her feet and later on got promoted to sergeant. We’re friends but we’re also a family.”
Respect for each other was expected of the employees and demanded of the offenders, which he said bolstered the atmosphere and helped out safety.
“In my seven years running that unit we never had an instance of an officer being injured by an offender,” he said. “At the time we had all types of offenders, except women. The good. The bad. And the bad, bad.”
The Holliday Unit is a transfer facility between county jails and state prisons housing a maximum of more than 2,000 inmates at any given time. It’s the 452 employees that Watkins says keeps the grounds operating, not him.
“I didn’t run the unit,” Watkins said. “The staff did.”
He left in January 2005 before also taking up consulting and traveling more than 100 miles a week to his church in Houston with his wife.
Michael Upshaw was next to take up the post, although in only the six months he was warden he echoed the same sentiment that his predecessors did: experience is key in a good staff.
“(When the unit opened) they didn’t have to use new staff like they did in West Texas,” he said. “They knew the policies. They knew how to deal with inmates. You can’t just hand them a book and say, ‘Here’s how to do it.’ A lot of the staff that started the unit are still here, and that helps.”
Current warden Pamela Baggett started as the health administrator in 1993, a duty she shared with the Wynne Unit. She’s moved up the ladder until the position she has now in September 2005.
At the start of the lunch, also attended by other TDCJ employees, Huntsville Mayor Mac Woodward and Sheriff Clint McRae, Baggett reminded the former wardens who made their jobs go by so easily.
“The staff allows us to do our jobs,” she said. “They don’t get a pat on the back. They just do what they do.”
Wardens say thanks to hard-working staff as they reflect on Holliday’s 20-year history
The five wardens of the Rev. C.A. Holliday Unit had it easy.
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