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Departing TDCJ executive director recalls the events, people of 27 years

Gary Johnson sitting in chair with desk and office in background
Retired TDCJ Executive Director Gary Johnson says agency employees should be proud of the job they do day in and day out.
Photo by David Nunnelee
Departing TDCJ Executive Director Gary Johnson is one of those people who can remember minute details about an event that happened years ago as if it happened only yesterday. He remembers, for example, exactly where he was working the night an offender attempted to escape from the former Jester II Unit in Sugar Land back in 1974. It was the first attempted escape the young son of a Baptist preacher had experienced as a correctional officer.

“I remember working the back gate picket there,” Johnson said on the eve of retirement after nearly 28 years with the agency in various positions. “I remember the people that were involved. The whole evening I remember.”Johnson, 49, also vividly recalls the day more than 20 years ago when while working as a mailroom sergeant at the Eastham Unit near Lovelady, then Texas Department of Corrections Director Jim Estelle took the time to stop and talk to the man who would one day succeed him.

“He was walking through the hallway and he stopped briefly, shook my hand, and asked me how I was doing,” Johnson said. “That interaction probably took all of 30 seconds but here we are some 20 years later and I still remember that moment. I’ll never forget it.”

Estelle’s gesture so impressed Johnson that he made it a point as executive director to routinely stop and talk to rank and file employees when visiting offices or facilities.

“I’ll never forget how important it is to pay attention to the people who are out there,” Johnson said. “One of the highlights of my career is that I’ve gotten to know all these people and had the opportunity to work with them and I’m proud of my association with them.”

But also etched in Johnson’s memory is the phone call he received one morning this past June telling him that two correctional officers at the Eastham Unit had been assaulted and seriously injured. It was one of several such calls he had received in the nine years he served as either director of the state prison system or as TDCJ executive director.

“I remember so clearly getting that call that morning about the assault and how seriously injured they both were,” he said. “And you begin to ask yourself, ‘How many more of these calls can I really take?’ It takes a toll on you after a while because you always have a sense of responsibility.”

One other thing Johnson still sees clearly is a car sliding out of control at 70 miles per hour on a wet roadway one January afternoon and slamming head-on into the sedan he and TDCJ Deputy Executive Director Ed Owens were driving back to Huntsville from a meeting of the Texas Board of Criminal Justice in Austin.

“I still remember the collision,” he said about the accident that left he and Owens injured and an occupant of the second vehicle dead. “I still remember the two cars hitting each other and all the chaos that ensued after that.”

For months Johnson kept photographs of the demolished state vehicle he and Owens occupied inside a reference book he carried with him.

“Every day I thumb through that and look at the pictures of the car just as a reminder of what really are the important things in life,” he said. “Those kind of events certainly help you focus and put things in perspective and come to the realization of how fragile life is. I do have a very clear understanding now of how tenuous life is from day to day.”

The accident so affected Johnson that he thought about retiring a month after it happened. But he didn’t finally decide to leave after 3 1/2 years as executive director until the first week of October. He simply felt it was time to step back and assess his life.

“You always have to be able to give this job 100 percent of your