TDCJ Employees Awarded CJ Scholarships

Debbie Erwin and Chris Cirrito, employees at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, were awarded scholarships for the Master of Criminal Justice Leadership and Management program.

Debbie Erwin and Chris Cirrito began their careers in the Texas Department of Criminal Justice as correctional officers. Erwin has since advanced through the correctional officer ranks, while Cirrito has followed a different career path. With a scholarship from the College of Criminal Justice and the Correctional Management Institute of Texas, the two will pursue a Master’s degree at Sam Houston State University and take their careers to new heights.

“With the master’s degree, I really hope to do two things which are both personal and professional,” said Cirrito. “On personal level, I have always been interested in the philosophy of criminal justice. On a professional level, the master’s program will allow me to apply the concepts I learn to my current position in management in the internal audit department.”

Erwin is an Assistant Warden at the Eastham Unit in Lovelady, where she manages offenders and staff, oversees safety and security, supervises departments and monitors programs. Cirrito is a manager within the internal audit function at the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which performs independent internal audits of the agency's system of internal controls and the quality of performance in carrying out assigned responsibilities. Both will attend the Master of Science Program in Criminal Justice Leadership and Management on weekends.

“Through the weekend program, I only have to commit one weekend a month,” said Erwin. “It offers flexibility for someone who works full time.”

Cirrito (center, left) and Erwin (center right) are joined by CMIT Executive Director Doug Dretke and TCCJ Human Resources Director Jan Thornton (r).
Cirrito (center, left) and Erwin (center right) are joined by CMIT Executive Director Doug Dretke and TCCJ Human Resources Director Jan Thornton (r).
Both Erwin and Cirrito were selected for scholarships for TDCJ employees based on criteria and nominations by the department. They will attend the intensive weekend program, which is designed for experienced criminal justice professionals. The program will deliver skills critical for effective functioning in managerial positions in criminal justice and for career advancement. The traditional "thesis" requirement has been replaced by a capstone course in leadership.

“It is a great opportunity for our staff who are invested in criminal justice careers to expand their education,” said Jan Thornton, Human Resources Director at TDCJ. “This program will help them to meet their personal and professional goals with our agency.”

Erwin is Assistant Warden at the Eastham Unit.
Erwin is Assistant Warden at the Eastham Unit.
Erwin has worked at TDCJ since 1984 and was inspired by two colleagues, Beverly Stewart and Becky Price, to pursue her education. “I believe it is very important,” Erwin said. “If you are going to advance, you need to have the educational background. Within this agency, if you are willing to put forth the effort, you have endless opportunities.”

During her career, Erwin began as a correctional officer at the Terrell Unit and promoted through classification at the Polunsky, Lewis, Goodman and Ferguson units, ultimately reaching the position of administrator for unit classification and count room operations. In 2009, Erwin was promoted to Assistant Warden of the Eastham Unit.

Erwin said that administrators and employees at the Eastham Unit have always stood by her side, encouraging her through a serious illness and now in pursuing a Master’s degree.

“The people that I work with really supported me and it really made a difference,” said Erwin. “It showed me at this agency, people care.”

Cirrito is a Manager in the Interal Audit Division.
Cirrito is a Manager in the Interal Audit Division.
Cirrito, a 1997 criminal justice graduate from SHSU, is looking forward to expanding his knowledge in philosophy and practice. He began his career as a correctional officer in 1995 while pursuing his bachelor’s at Sam Houston State University, serving at the Eastham and Ellis Units, where he volunteered to work on Death Row. He recalls reviewing a U.S. Supreme Court decision on a death penalty case in class, only to return to work and face the defendant who was still on Death Row. “I was able to see the practical application and see firsthand what they were talking about,” Cirrito said.

After joining the Internal Audit Division, Cirrito witnessed even more of the system in action. His job is to evaluate systems and processes in the Department of Criminal Justice and evaluate whether they achieve their objectives effectively and efficiently. He deals with all aspects of corrections, from post- conviction to post-release. Cirrito is also a Certified Internal Auditor and a Certified Fraud Examiner.

“We review processes and recommend corrective actions when the agency’s performance objectives aren’t met,” said Cirrito. “Pursuing this degree will allow me to broaden my lens and allow me to look at processes with a wider perspective. It will help me identify the issues and may also help develop recommendations to fix the problems.”

Erwin and Cirrito will begin the two year program in August.

“It is a tremendous honor for the Correctional Management Institute to play a role in the continued educational achievement and growth of Texas criminal Justice professionals,” said Doug Dretke, Executive Director of CMIT. “Both recipients represent the highest level of professionalism within the Texas Department of Criminal Justice and serve as a tribute to their agency and the public they serve.”

Member of The Texas State University System