Bryan Collier began running the nation’s largest prison system last August when he was promoted to take over as executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
Collier went to work for the agency more than 30 years ago as a clerk. He has worked his way to the top. Collier held positions as a correctional officer, parole officer, unit supervisor, program administrator and parole division director since joining the agency in 1985.
Collier took time last week to answer a few questions from The Huntsville Item about his first six months on the job and how TDCJ is dealing with possible budget cuts and other issues.
Item: How have the first six months on the job been?
Collier: It has been much more fun than I imagined. I’ve hit the ground running. I was fortunate to serve as the deputy executive director for nine years, so the learning curve has not been as steep. This agency has a lot of moving parts and touches many lives across this state. From the frontline staff out in the field to the offenders in our care, what we do has a significant impact on people; the enormity of that does sink in when you take on this position. I truly look forward to coming to work every day. There are many challenges, but I enjoy tackling those head-on and it is a true honor and privilege to be able to serve in this role.
Item: Having worked closely with former director Brad Livingston, how has the transition to your new position been?
Collier: The transition has been very smooth. Brad was an exceptional leader and he left the agency in good shape. We are continuing to build upon those successes. We have an extremely talented leadership team and we represent thousands of dedicated hardworking staff who do a great job of providing public safety. They, along with our board, have all been very supportive and have helped to make the transition seamless.
Item: Gov. Greg Abbott wants every state agency to cut its budget by 4 percent. When TDCJ presented its 2018-19 budget proposal to the Texas Board of Criminal Justice, the agency said it might have to reduce its staff by 2,000 employees. Is another round of reduction in force coming as it did in 2011? It’s been reported that the majority of the layoffs could be correctional officers. If that’s the case, how does that affect safety concerns for employees?
Collier: We worked very hard prior to the legislative session to make sure that leadership offices were aware of the potential impact of the reductions. We proposed options to include the closure of a Houston facility that would reduce our need for the full restoration of the 4 percent reductions. We moved forward and closed that facility in December and repurposed another Houston facility to meet our needs. The House and Senate have both presented their initial budgets and funded our core agency operations and programs at the FY 2016-2017 levels. We fortunately received the requested amount of the 4 percent funding back in both appropriations bills.
While we have several very important, exceptional items — we are seeking funding for the 2018-19 budget — we are certainly positioned much better than we could have been. The House and Senate budgets do have some differences and we are working closely with each committee to make them aware of our agency needs.
The final budget decisions will not be made until May. At the end of the day, we’re confident that the critical funding requirements within the criminal justice system will be met.
Item: A statewide hiring freeze has been implemented as lawmakers go through the budget process. How is TDCJ handling this? Does the freeze apply to all positions?
Collier: The agency is subject to the hiring freeze and has many categories of positions that are frozen. Fortunately, many of our critical positions such as correctional officers, parole officers, agricultural and industrial specialists, and Office of the Inspector General investigators were exempted from the freeze. TDCJ may make some modest requests for other exemptions, however, we feel we will be able to meet our mission within the parameters of the hiring freeze.
Item: The prison population has continued to decrease. Are there plans to close any prison units to assist the agency in cutting its budget?
Collier: As mentioned earlier, we did close one facility in December and based on our capacity and population, we will likely propose closing one additional facility. The recent projections published by the Legislative Budget Board show very little offender population growth and we believe it may be possible to close a facility without negatively affecting public safety. This is something we will discuss further with the Legislature and the Governor’s Office as the session moves forward.
Item: If so, could any of the units in Walker County and surrounding areas be facing closure?
Collier: We’re continuing to have ongoing discussions with the Legislature regarding a possible closure. I can tell you it’s more likely we would look first at areas in the state that face staffing challenges. We’re fortunate that the Huntsville area has a strong employment base.
Item: As for the offenders, is there any danger that TDCJ programs and educational and vocational classes offered through Windham School District aimed at reducing recidivism could be cut to save money?
Collier: No. Although Windham is a separate agency from TDCJ, their budget was not reduced in the base bills. According to the latest available data, approximately 21 percent of offenders released from TDCJ return to prison three years after release. That is one of the lowest rates in our nation. This is a testament to our treatment and diversion programs as well as the work that Windham is doing. Our ultimate goal is to get that number as close to zero as possible. We will continue to work closely with our partners like Windham to ensure offenders are prepared to re-enter society successfully.
Item: A U.S. district judge has ruled that a civil lawsuit filed against TDCJ over the alleged heat-related death of an inmate will go to trial. How much would it cost the state to air condition all the prison units if forced to do so?
Collier: Let me first say that the agency takes numerous precautions prior to and during the summer months to help mitigate temperature extremes. The safety, security and well-being of our staff and the offenders is something we take very seriously. There’s not a figure I can give you that would encompass all of our facilities. I can tell you it would be extremely expensive. We have had a comprehensive study to examine the logistics and possible costs associated with installing and maintaining air conditioning in correctional facilities. This study looked at four facilities because their designs are representative of other units within the system. For those four facilities, it would cost upwards of $345 million. This doesn’t include annual operating costs. Currently 29 of our 108 facilities have air conditioning in all housing areas; it would be very expensive to retrofit the remaining 79 units.