Consider that when Bryan Collier first answered the telephone as an employee of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice 22 years ago, he did so as a switchboard clerk, working the night shift while attending Sam Houston State University (SHSU) in Huntsville. Then consider that today, he answers the phone as the agency’s deputy executive director. Even for Collier, that seems like a long jump.
“I look at this and cannot believe that a 20-year-old kid who sat at the switchboard is now in this job,” Collier said in August, a month after being promoted to the second highest administrative position in the agency at the age of 42. “I never would have connected those dots.”
For the most part, a vertical line connects the dots of Collier’s TDCJ career. When it began in 1985, he was finishing up his bachelor’s degree in criminology and corrections at SHSU with the thought of going on to law school. Earlier, he had earned a two-year degree in law enforcement from a community college in his hometown of Marshall with high hopes of becoming a highway patrolman. But when budget cuts caused the Texas Department of Public Safety to cancel academy classes the same year he graduated, he moved to Huntsville to study criminal justice at SHSU. For more than a year while in school, he worked the 4 p.m.-to-midnight shift at the TDCJ switchboard in the basement of what was then the agency’s administrative headquarters on 11th Street. When things were slow, he would study or read up on the history of the Texas prison system and its wards, a subject that had always interested him.
“I probably read every book they had in the SHSU library on the history of TDCJ,” said Collier, whose father was a dentist and whose mother taught school. “That was interesting to me, and I was hungry to learn.”
Upon earning his degree in August 1986, Collier went to work as a correctional officer at the Eastham Unit near Lovelady. The following summer, still with the thought of attending law school in mind, he took a job as an institutional parole officer at the Darrington Unit near Rosharon. It was a move that proved pivotal to his career.
“That, to me, was the most interesting thing I could have ever done,” he said. “I loved being an institutional parole officer, and I couldn’t get enough of it. I enjoyed interviewing the offenders and I enjoyed trying to figure out why people do what they do. That was fun. And it was fun to the degree that I said, ‘To heck with law school. I’m going to do this.’”
By the late 1980s, state prisons were full and Collier had moved to Houston to work directly out of the Harris County Jail.
“Back then, we were so crowded that we had as many people in jail waiting to get in that were parole eligible as we did at units,” he said.
Collier left the jail when promoted to unit supervisor within the Parole Division. He left that division in 1994 to work as a program administrator for what was then the Programs and Services Division in Huntsville. But he returned to the parole branch a year later as director of its Review and Release Processing section. It, too, was a job he savored.
“I loved that job and didn’t really have any interest in promoting up,” he said. “At least not then I didn’t. I planned to be in that job for several years and then try to promote up. But sometimes things come along when you’re not looking for them.”
And that’s what happened. In 2000, Collier was promoted to deputy director for Support Services within the Parole Division. In January, 2002, at the age of 36, he was named the division’s director.
“I knew I could do the job, but at that point in my life, I didn’t know for sure if I was ready for that much of a leap,” he said. “But it all worked out just fine.”
Collier said his first few years as director of the Parole Division were a learning experience.
“I had worked the institutional side of parole coming up, but not the field side,” he said. “So when I became division director, that side was new to me. It was like taking on a new area.”
He said he learned the field side of parole by simply spending time with district parole officers.
“The officers never treated me as an outsider,” he said. “They were absolutely wonderful. Probably the best days I had as Parole Division director were those I spent in the field with officers. It reminds you of why you’re doing the job you’re doing. It invigorates you.”
Collier said the position of deputy executive director interested him because it allows him to work more closely with Executive Director Brad Livingston and to learn about the different aspects of the agency.
“I knew I could learn by being in the position, and, to me, that’s important,” he said. “You shouldn’t assume you know it all. I knew Mr. Livingston was somebody I could learn from. He’s probably the most skilled person in the legislative session I’ve ever seen. So working closely with him, I know I will learn in several areas.”
Collier attributes his steady rise in the agency to hard work and to not looking beyond the job at hand.
“But I guess the biggest thing is that I enjoyed the work and I was passionate about doing it,” he said. “And I’m still passionate about doing it. I guess caring about it to that degree has always made it fun, even on the hard days.”
Collier and his wife have three sons, including a 20-year-old now serving in Iraq with the U.S. Marine Corps. He said he’s happy to be back in East Texas and grateful for his years with TDCJ.
“It’s been a great career,” he said. “More things have happened to me in my career than I would have ever dreamed. But more than anything else, I hope that in this job I can contribute something back to the agency and its employees, because it’s the people in this agency that make it unique. I’ve always had a passion for the work here, even when I was a switchboard clerk. I enjoyed that job and wanted to do it. It wasn’t a bad job at all.”