TDCJ Hero Funds Criminal Justice Scholarship

Warden Billy Hirsch and Melanie Smith work at the Wynne Unit, where TDCJ Hero Susan L. Canfield was killed during an escape.
Warden Billy Hirsch and Melanie Smith work at the Wynne Unit, where TDCJ Hero Susan L. Canfield was killed during an escape.

After spending four years at the Holliday and Wynne Units, Correctional Officer Melanie Smith decided she would like to become a lawyer to provide a voice for victims or to defend the innocent.

“I want to be an attorney,” said Smith. “That’s where you get a say so and the justification to speak up for the innocent. If someone is being victimized, you get to speak for them too.”

Susan L. Canfield (center) stands among the field force at the Wynne Unit about two weeks before her death.
Susan L. Canfield (center) stands among the field force at the Wynne Unit about two weeks before her death.
Smith is pursuing her dream at Sam Houston State University’s College of Criminal Justice thanks to a scholarship endowment fund that was set up by fellow correctional officers and friends to honor one of their own killed in the line of duty. Correctional Officer Susan L. Canfield was supervising inmates outside the Wynne Unit in 2007 when she and her horse were struck and killed by two of the inmates who escaped in a stolen vehicle.

Chris Bell
Chris Bell
The scholarship was set up by then-Wynne Warden Chris Bell, and employees from across the Texas Department of Criminal Justice contributed to the scholarship fund. The TDCJ training center created a coin in Canfield’s honor and the proceeds from sales at the Texas State Prison Museum were given to the scholarship fund. Each year, fundraisers are held in her name to raise more money for the endowment.

A group from TDCJ Correctional Training and Staff Development  presented the proceeds from commemorative coins sold to raise scholarship funds.
A group from TDCJ Correctional Training and Staff Development presented the proceeds from commemorative coins sold to raise scholarship funds.

“We created the scholarship so that she will never be forgotten,” said Warden Billy Hirsch, a SHSU Alumnus who runs the Wynne Unit today. “We took an oath to protect the public and to put ourselves in harm’s way. Members of the military and police put themselves in harm’s way on a daily basis. Very seldom do we have to put ourselves directly in harm’s way, but she did and she made the ultimate sacrifice. She was a real live hero and she should never, ever be forgotten.”

Preference for the scholarship is given to Canfield’s children and grandchildren as well as employees, their children or grandchildren, and retirees from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.

Members of the TDCJ softball team that helped raise funds for the Canfield scholarship.
Members of the TDCJ softball team that helped raise funds for the Canfield scholarship.
“To me, it was a win-win situation to give this to employees because the TDC’s future is in education.” said Bell, another SHSU Alumnus. “And Sam Houston’s right here.”

Smith said she is honored to receive the scholarship that bears Canfield’s name. It means even more to be coming from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. “I love my job,” said Smith.

For the last six months, Smith has been assigned to the administrative segregation unit at Wynne, which house inmates who are security threats or individuals who have gotten in trouble in prison. Smith, who began at the Holliday Unit for those sentenced up to two years, said her current assignment allows her to have more direct observation and interaction with inmates. She provides for daily care, which may include meal, showers or medical visits.

“I have compassion,” said Smith. “You have to remember that these are human beings, not caged animals. We are not here to punish them, we are here to make sure they are safe.”

Smith received her scholarship award from Wardens Vernon Pitman (l) and Tony O'Hare(r)
Smith received her scholarship award from Wardens Vernon Pitman (l) and Tony O'Hare
Smith continues to work full-time while attending classes as a junior at Sam Houston State University. Smith said classes provide a broader perspective on the criminal justice system. At the Wynne Unit, she can apply her learning to her everyday interaction with inmates.

“I learn something new every day at work and at school,” said Smith. “You gain a lot of knowledge as a TDCJ officer, but you don’t know very much about the broad system, like how they get there and the things that happen at court.”
At Wynne, she works with many of the state’s top security threat groups, such as gangs like the Aryan Brotherhood, the Mexican Mafia and the Texas Syndicate. She also gets lessons in school about these same gangs.

“It’s exciting because I get to know more about the process,” said Smith.

Smith said she was excited to learn about scholarship opportunities for undergraduates provided by TDCJ employees. The Correctional Management Institute of Texas and the College of Criminal Justice also offers scholarship for TDCJ employees to participate in the Master of Criminal Justice Leadership and Management program offered both online and on weekends.

Member of The Texas State University System