The Great Texas Prison Mess

During the gargantuan buildup of the Texas Prison System, everyone wanted in on the action—even Andy Collins, the boss himself. Here’s how greed, fear, and VitaPro produced the state’s costliest scandal.

IT WAS THE STUPIDEST THING THE STATE of Texas has ever done,” Andy Collins said about his crowning achievement, his oversight of the greatest expansion of prison beds in the history of the free world. “The public was absolutely hoodwinked into thinking that the only way the crime problem could ever be solved was prosecution and incarceration. We should’ve been interceding at an earlier age, dealing with these kids before they ever became crooks. But instead, we’re just taking juveniles and feeding them directly into the system. I mean, look who was behind it all. Prosecutors, cops, politicians—all of them with a self-serving agenda.

And the media,” Collins declared as he leaned over the patio table at his suburban home just north of Houston, delivering the accusation with a martyr’s relish. “The goddam media did as much as anyone to build all those prisons because they fanned the flames of public hysteria. The issue of crime has become entertainment. Turn on the TV. Cops. Rescue 911. That kind of crap.”

As recently as last December, Collins had been the most powerful bureaucrat in Texas, the executive director of the Texas Department of Criminal Justice ( TDCJ). Now it was March, and with news of scandal breaking all around him, his brief second career as a prison consultant was in shambles. By all rights he should have been a basket case. But here he was, wearing the standard yuppie regalia of khakis, loafers, and tortoiseshell glasses, puffing appreciatively on a long cigar, and sipping at a single-malt Scotch while his dachshund yapped away in the back yard and two of his daughters appeared on the patio to hit up their dad for movie money. The tableau was eerily serene; the 45-year-old Midland native with the well-padded cheeks and preadolescent grin was one hell of a lot tougher than he looked. He was placing calls to headhunters about job opportunities that had little to do with the way he had spent the past 23 years of his life, and former subordinates in Huntsville were now trashing him in the papers. And yet Andy Collins had not lost an ounce of his old charm and could still downshift from scholarly correctional minutiae to Bubba banter with the ease of a bona fide political master.

And now,” he said, his laughter both sour and triumphant, “now we’re worried about the aftertaste of VitaPro! People were willing to feed these sumbitches dog food! And now they’re worried about an inmate’s aftertaste.”

But VitaPro, the soybean-based powder that Texas prisons have been using as a meat substitute, had nothing on the bitter aftertaste of irony that so bedevils Collins nowadays. He stood center stage as the state carried out a frantic buildup that transformed a once-provincial agency centered in rural East Texas into a mighty bureaucracy with outposts in 72 towns—the biggest prison system concocted by any free society in history. From 1990 to 1995, the TDCJ’s annual operating budget ballooned from $700 million to $2.2 billion. All of a sudden, the gloomy prison business was the hottest thing going, and money grabbers poured in from all over North America to get in on the action. Private-prison operators reaped more profits in Texas than anywhere else in the nation. Construction firms and subcontractors raked in hundreds of millions of dollars. Vendors great and small, proffering a myriad of esoteric wares—state-of-the-art mousetraps, law journals for prison libraries, grease trap-cleaning systems, taut-wire intrusion-detector fences, and, yes, VitaPro—paid handsome fees to self-styled “corrections consultants” or to lobbyists who would dispense campaign contributions wherever influence could be peddled. Even cities got in on the act by competing for the new state jails that might bring jobs and economic salvation; among the winners were Bonham, Dalhart, Raymondville, and Henderson—towns so removed from major crime centers that the goal of keeping inmates near their communities was negated. The Texas prison expansion became a feeding frenzy, and the unenviable task of overseeing it fell to Andy Collins. Eventually it began to dawn on him that there had to be a better way to make a living—and that way, of course, was all around him.

The story of how Andy Collins set himself up to make money as a consultant for VitaPro and other businesses to which he had doled out lucrative contracts began to unravel in early January, just four days after Collins officially left the TDCJ to become a consultant. Law enforcement officials had arrested a man named Patrick Graham for allegedly accepting money in exchange for trying to use his influence to spring a TDCJ inmate. In Graham’s wallet was a business card identifying him as a broker for VitaPro, a company that had been awarded a $33.7 million contract by Collins six months earlier. But Graham had a more ominous link to the former TDCJ director: He was Collins’ brand-new business partner. In the ensuing weeks, reporters found other contracts Collins had tendered without the approval of the appointed board that oversees the TDCJ. What has emerged is the tawdriest government spectacle since the Sharpstown scandal 25 years ago. Governor George W. Bush has enlisted the services of the Texas Rangers and the FBI to investigate what he has described as “sweetheart contracts”—implying that Collins may have benefited illegally from such deals. Though Collins has not yet been formally accused of breaking any laws, that may say more about the wording of the laws than the integrity of the ex-director.

But in the rush to judge Andy Collins, the media and the politicians have failed to judge his accomplices in the great prison scandal: themselves. So eager were they to sate the public’s bloodlust for locking up criminals and throwing away the key that they helped create a climate of hysteria in which corruption could flourish. The dust from the prison expansion has now settled, and we are left with a sorry mess indeed. The state prison system, which before the buildup was so overcrowded that it had to

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