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Returning veterans teaching new generation of TDCJ correctional officers

Major Janice Wilson posing in classroom of trainees listening to instructors
Major Janice Wilson, a former TDCJ senior warden and assistant director, now oversees the training of pre-service and in-service classes at the Gatesville Training Academy.

Photo by David Nunnelee

When Sgt. Grover Goodwell walks to the head of a classroom at the Minnie R. Houston Training Facility outside the Ellis Unit in Huntsville, students tend to sit up and take notice. At age 64, he’s not like the average training sergeant in TDCJ.

Students also soon notice that Goodwell knows a lot about corrections and is able to complement the curriculum by relating his own experiences. What the students may or may not know is that he was once a top investigator and an assistant warden with the agency.

Goodwell is one of a handful of former high-ranking TDCJ correctional employees who have retired and returned to the agency over the years to train a new generation of security officers. Until recently, Goodwell worked alongside Michael Lightsey, a one-time assistant warden who taught at the academy for nearly two years before leaving TDCJ a second time in March. Another returning veteran is Janice Wilson, a former senior warden and assistant director for the one-time State Jail Division who is now the major at the Gatesville Training Academy.

“When you put them in front of a class, I don’t care how many years of experience you have, you can’t argue with the reputation and credibility that they bring to the classroom,” Correctional Training & Development Director Michael Upshaw said about the TDCJ veteran instructors. “They’ve been there. I’d love to have the opportunity to bring more in.”

Years of experience

Goodwell, a former police officer from Akron, Ohio, joined TDCJ as a correctional officer at what is now the Stringfellow Unit near Rosharon in 1987. He moved to the then-Internal Affairs Division two years later and rose to the rank of captain before being promoted to assistant warden at the Goree Unit in Huntsville in March 1995. He moved to the Holliday Transfer Facility and to the Byrd Unit in the same capacity before retiring in January 2007.

Goodwell said he intended to spend much of his retirement farming his 10 acres of land west of Huntsville. But he quickly decided to return to teach correctional recruits after running into Upshaw by chance one day.

“I could have come back to other jobs with the agency, but this seemed like a good thing,” Goodwell said. “It sounded like a challenge.”

Goodwell said he doesn’t mention his past positions in the classroom.

“The students get that picture of a warden, and it’s ‘Oh, oh,’” he said. “I don’t want them to do that. I can’t change that I’m a lot older than they are, but I like to put myself on the same level.”

Lightsey’s TDCJ career reaches back to 1967 when he went to work as a correctional officer at the Ellis Unit. He made lieutenant there and was then promoted to captain at what is now the Byrd Unit. He returned to Ellis as an assistant warden in 1976. Lightsey, now 62, left corrections in 1979 and for the next 20 years worked off and on as an operations manager for the owner of a chain of fast food restaurants. He returned to the state in 1999 as a grievance coordinator at Ellis and moved to the Ferguson Unit near Midway before retiring in August 2006. That lasted about two months.

“It just so happened that they put up a couple of openings in the training department as training sergeants,” he said. “I felt like I could give something back to corrections by returning as an instructor.”

Wilson worked six years in security for the former Texas Youth Council before joining TDCJ as a correctional officer at the Mountain View Unit in Gatesville in 1978. She rose through the security ranks at the Gatesville Unit before being promoted to assistant warden at the Garza West Transfer Facility in Beeville in early 1994. In October of that year, she was named senior warden at the Plane State Jail Dayton and two years later moved to Austin as assistant director for the State Jail Division. She retired from TDCJ in 1998 and worked the next two years as senior warden of the privately operated Dawson State Jail in Dallas. For the next six years, she worked odd jobs and played a lot of golf.

TDCJ training sergeants Michael Lightsey, left, and Groover Goodwell both served as assistant wardens during their careers.

“I did get somewhat bored, but more than anything, I missed being around people,” Wilson said about her decision to return to TDCJ as a lieutenant at the Hilltop Unit in Gatesville in late 2006. “And I love working for this agency. I could have gone to work for the private side again, but I like this agency. I like where it’s going, and I like its vision.”

Ironically, because Wilson had been off the TDCJ payroll for more than three years, she had to go through the training academy she now leads before returning to work.

“Having been a warden and an assistant director, it was a very humbling experience,” she said about her 5 1/2 weeks in the academy. “But, actually, it was good for me because I had been out of corrections for six years and it was very different coming back in. Things had changed. So it was good for me to come back through and get back to basics. I think our training today is more intense, more realistic, more informative.”

After a year as a shift lieutenant, Wilson, 60, applied for the vacant major’s position in the training academy. She now supervises 10 staff members, including eight sergeants, one lieutenant and a captain. She also oversees five unit-based academies and occasionally teaches both pre-service and in-service classes.

“I bring not just the knowledge, but I bring some experiences that I know that they’re going to experience in corrections,” Wilson said. “I’ve been in many situations, and I can share those situations with them to try to make their job easier and better. So I think I bring a well-rounded past to the classroom.”

“I think I bring experience and accountability as to who I am and where I’ve been,” Lightsey said. “People in the classroom will listen to somebody who’s been there and done that. I think we need that diversity in the classroom.”

“I bring just me,” Goodwell commented. “I try to be credible. I tell the correctional officers that they’re the most important people on the unit. But my main message to them is, ‘Do the right thing.’”

Modern methods

While their careers date back decades, the curriculum the veteran TDCJ trainers teach is cutting edge.

“The employees we’ve been able to bring back are very aware of the changes and the direction the agency has gone, and they support that,” Upshaw said. “In no way are they trying to teach our current employees what was done in the 70s. They have some unique stories they can tell to make the class more interesting, but in no way do they try to insinuate that the old way is the right way. They are 100 percent on board with the direction the agency has taken.”

“To me, you have to be able to change or you’re going to be a liability, not an asset,” Lightsey said. “They stress to us to teach the curriculum, and I’m going to make sure that the curriculum is there. I bring up one of my past experiences to make my point, but I don’t take away from the curriculum. Still, I feel like history is a very important asset this agency has, and we don’t need to lose that. We learn from our history.”

“I feel like if we don’t change with the times, we’re lost,” Wilson added. “I tell them that I’ve been in their situation. I’ve been a CO (correctional officer) before and that in the academy we’re going to try to make sure that they have a clear picture of where they’re going to work. I just tell them the real story.”

The next generation

The three veteran trainers said it has been personally satisfying to have had a hand in teaching the next generation of TDCJ correctional officers.

“Coming to work every day, I have to make a difference for myself and for someone else,” Wilson said. “We all had mentors at one time, and it’s so important that we do that. So if I can mentor and make people better, then that’s what it’s all about for me. I just wanted to give back.”

“What I’m doing, I love,” Goodwell added. “It’s like gardening. You plant a seed, and pretty soon that seed starts growing. That’s why I like gardening. You can see something grow. (It’s the) same thing here.”

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