It is 11 a.m. on a Saturday and the sun is shining on the shores of Lake Conroe, where the woman once known as the First Lady of Huntsville, Texas, is standing in the kitchen of her townhouse, stirring tequila into her Crystal Light.
“It’s strong because, fuck, I’ve been through a lot in the last two months,” Melinda Brewer says, reaching for a pack of menthols on the granite counter. She is short, with tattooed eyeliner, bleached blond hair and a brawny build. She looks like she might punch you — and if she does, it’ll hurt.
Afterwards, she might cuss you out with a slight East Texas lilt, scattering obscenities into her sentences in unexpected places. Or she might just cluck dismissively and move on.
She is always in a hurry, speeding through life like a woman on the run — until you mention Huntsville. Then, her body slows and her eyes narrow, remembering: Once upon a time, that was her city of dreams. Once upon a time, that was her town.
A place where she knew all the watering holes and the greasy spoons. She knew the barkeeps and the gossip. She knew the back road shortcuts zigging between the decaying buildings that lured her there in the first place: the state’s prisons.
For most people, prisons are a place of loss and heartache. But for Melinda they were a place to start over, to build a life outside the long shadow of her outlaw family. When she worked there, Huntsville had seven lockups in town, plus two more nearby. There were sprawling acres of prison farms, run-down factories powered by prison labor, and the network of administrative offices that formed the nerve center of the biggest state prison system in the country. Not to mention the prison museum, the criminal justice college, and the aging building that housed the state’s death chamber.
Just across the street was a two-story house, brick and white siding, so plain you knew the state had to own it. Traditionally, it was set aside for some of the top prison brass in town: the regional director and his wife. For a time, that was her — Huntsville royalty.
Huntsville is the sort of kingdom that is a cross between Game of Thrones and a Walmart, as one local described it. There is some wealth and incredible power among the top prison officials, but there is also plenty of poverty and small-town drama surrounding the insular corrections agency. In the summer of 2019, that drama exploded after a fight about a fried-food truck. It was the greasy spark in a family feud that would be Melinda’s downfall, the thing that dragged her back toward the world she’d fought to escape.
The flare-up also revealed much about the state of the nation’s prisons and the struggling people we rely on to run them. For many, the attraction of working in the incarceration industry isn’t some innate joy derived from locking people up or abusing them. Instead, it’s an opportunity, maybe their only opportunity, to escape a life of poverty and hold down stable jobs with good benefits. And to aspire to making middle-class salaries, even in places where their other main options are working at Waffle House or Walmart. But there’s a price to be paid for those jobs, by workers and their communities. When it comes to American incarceration, no one escapes undamaged.
The first time I met Melinda, mixing that late morning drink in her kitchen, she lit a cigarette and sat down to tell me her story.
It all started that spring, a few weeks after Melinda and her husband Wayne, the regional director, parked their new food truck across from the Walker County courthouse, a few blocks from the state’s oldest prison. They got some wooden benches, painted signs bright red to match the trailer, and posted a menu offering fish tacos and fried seafood they planned to sell to prison guards and downtown passersby. They commissioned a cartoon logo — a catfish wearing Wayne’s sunglasses, grinning at a sexy shrimp with Melinda’s dark eyeliner — and came up with the name: Chasin’ Tail.
But because the Brewers both spent their days working for the prison system, they needed people to help run the place. Wayne offered a suggestion: Why don’t we hire your mother? Melinda scoffed at first. Her relationship with her mother, Kathy Lindley, had always been turbulent at best. But hiring her as a cook seemed like a good way to mend fences.
In only a matter of weeks, however, the usual acrimony bubbled up, erupting into an Easter morning screaming match at Kathy’s yellow ranch house on the edge of the Trinity River. It was supposed to be a family gathering but, according to Kathy, Melinda waltzed in and started making unreasonable demands, as if she could control her mother with a paltry food-truck salary.
“She told me a friend of mine can’t stay at my house!” Kathy told me weeks later, fuming into the phone. “And I said, ‘Well, you can say that when you pay the mortgage.’ And she said that she’d make sure I wouldn’t have a house.”
According to Melinda, she didn’t make that threat and the friend in question was a white supremacist gang member awaiting release from federal prison. Kathy had also befriended a man who had just gotten out of state prison and, as a prison employee, Melinda worried she needed to tell her bosses: She knew the agency had strict rules about disclosing relationships with current and former prisoners, and she feared her mother’s social life would get her fired.
When she told Kathy her concerns, bickering gave way to hollering and insults and obscenities, and eventually Melinda threw a Yeti cup across her mother’s bedroom, spilling something — iced tea according to Melinda; vodka according to Kathy — all over the furniture.
Then, depending on who tells you the story and what mood they’re in, Kathy either quit or got fired from the fish trailer and Melinda stormed out of the house, shouting Happy Easter! as she strode to the car.
When you’re getting close, you know it. As you’re heading north from Houston, you’ll see the traffic on the hellway of I-45 thinning out, cars replaced by monster trucks and 18-wheelers. The chintzy strip malls of exurban sprawl give way to shabby gas stations and seas of loblolly and shortleaf pines. It seems, for a minute, that you are approaching a blank spot in the red-blooded heart of Texas. But keep going, and soon you’ll spot the white of Sam Houston’s marble head looming on the horizon, an unsettling 67-foot-tall homage to the patron saint of the Lone Star State.
Welcome to Huntsville.
Nestled into the edge of the pine curtain of East Texas, Huntsville has been a prison town for nearly all of its existence. Just three years after the town incorporated in 1845, the state named it the site of the first penitentiary, a red brick structure built in part by the prisoners themselves. Less than a year in, the prison was already embroiled in its first scandal, a case involving claims of contracting fraud that prompted a state investigation. In the meantime, incarcerated people helped build the town, rented out by the state as an unpaid labor force of bricklayers and carpenters. Schools and churches went up, the university came in and the state started adding more prisons.
Now, 46,000 people — including those behind bars — live here. Almost every one of them, it seems, knows someone who worked for or did time under the Texas Department of Criminal Justice.
“More than 5,000 employees work and spend money in this area every day,” Robert Hurst, the agency’s current spokesman, wrote in a recent email. The agency “is a core part of this community and plays a significant role in the local economy.”
As the locals will tell you, being a prison town has side effects. Some are small: Huntsvilleans know not to go to Walmart on the first of the month, when it’s crowded with corrections employees who just got paid. Residents also know how to look past the dozens of road signs directing visitors to the prisons and administrative buildings. And they don’t blink at film crews coming to gawk at Prison Town, USA.
Other side effects of living in a prison town are bigger. The sheer acreage of property owned by the state cuts into the local tax base. Many of the thousands of prison jobs in town don’t pay particularly well; the starting salary for a guard is just over $36,000. Almost a third of the residents live in poverty, as compared to 13.4% statewide, and the median household income is barely half of the Texas average. Nearly two-thirds of Huntsville students qualify for free lunch.
When Melinda gives me a driving tour a few weeks after our lakeside interview, she takes me by the prison cemetery, the factory that makes yarn for prison uniforms, and the hamburger joint with prison-themed menu items like the “Warden Burger” and “Old Sparky.” And as she points out the town’s highlights and lowlights, she scatters in gossip all along the way: Which warden is in a love triangle, which manager got fired, which employee is supposedly stealing from the state.
Long before she was the First Lady of Huntsville, Melinda was a little girl growing up in the dwindling town of Trinity. One mile from the banks of a river known best for its pollution, the 2,700-resident country outpost once boasted an opera house, sawmills and a railroad line that led to Houston, 80 miles to the south. Now, the passenger trains are gone, but the town still looks the part, its main street lined with the low-slung rectangular buildings that could have been lifted from a child’s train set.
One of Melinda’s early memories there dates to third grade, when she climbed to the top of the tallest tree in the front of her grandparents’ single-story house with its brown shingle roof. Perched in the branches of the oak, she watched as a patrol car drove away with her father in the back seat. It was the first time she knew for sure that her family was breaking the law.
The next time she saw her father, he was a gaunt figure behind the thick glass of a prison visiting room just outside of Huntsville, where he was serving a three-year sentence for selling pot.
Huntsville was just one county over, but it seemed like the big city to her. It had a Kmart and a movie theater and a skating rink, and sounded so much busier than the two-stoplight town of Trinity. “If you wanted a life,” Melinda said, “you went to Huntsville.” And with all those prisons, it also sounded like a place of law and order.
When Melinda was young, her father was wrapped up in drugs and prisons, much like her cousin and a couple of her half-brothers. Sometimes, she remembered, one relative or another would come home high and whip out a loaded pistol or cocked fist. Usually, her dad wasn’t around to stop it. Some of the time he was locked up, and even when he wasn’t, he didn’t live with his daughter, but in a trailer nearby.
Though her mother didn’t rack up a rap sheet, she wasn’t around either — in part because she was only 12 when she got pregnant with Melinda. None of the adults in her life saw it as rape, and they did not press charges. Instead, they pushed Kathy to marry the man seven years her senior. “I had a baby before I had a Barbie doll,” Kathy says now. “But I couldn’t take it. I left when I was 14.”
So Melinda’s grandparents raised her, supporting the family with income from the grocery store a few yards from their home on Trinity’s main road. Behind the legitimate business out front was a gambling room run by her bootlegger granddad, her father’s father. As soon as she was old enough, Melinda helped answer the door for late-night callers, retrieving booze from the cedar chest stashed in her bedroom and sometimes accepting stolen goods in return.
When Melinda was 12, her mother resurfaced. After years of running wild on the backs of Harleys, Kathy was ready to settle down with a steady job — as a prison guard at the Pack Unit, an hour away in Navasota. She worked for the agency for a few years, married a captain and moved into state-owned housing across the street from the prison. On the weekends, Melinda came to visit, she recalled, tagging along to parties and bars with a mom who felt more like a cool older friend than a parent.
“Any trouble I got into was with her,” Melinda said.
After her grandfather died, Melinda went to beauty school and ended up working at the hair salon on her grandparents’ property. She married a man who worked in oil and gas, and together they had a daughter and bought a home on two acres. “We was living the Trinity dream,” she said. But all along, Melinda knew she wanted out. She wanted a new life, and she wanted it in Huntsville.
When you ask Huntsvilleans to describe the things seared into their collective memory, the front-page news that everyone remembers decades later, the most common examples are all connected to the prisons: The hostage-taking in 1974. The Gary Graham execution. The death row escape. The killing of prison guard Susan Canfield in 2007. But many will also tell you that they do not see Huntsville as a prison town. There is more here than just the lockups, Joseph Brown — who until recently worked as editor of the Huntsville Item — realized after he came to town in 2018. He soon stopped noticing the massive prisons on the side of the highway and started noticing the growing footprint of Sam Houston State University instead.
“I view it more as a college town now than a prison town,” he said. “Our biggest issue right now is not the prisons, it’s the apartments being built for the college students.”
Like everything else, the local paper has a connection with the prison system. The Item prints The Echo, a prisoner-written newspaper shipped out to every unit 10 times a year.
Brown’s predecessor at the paper, Cody Stark, said that Huntsville doesn’t want to be seen as a prison town. The locals don’t appreciate the notoriety associated with being the site of the country’s busiest death chamber. Plus, the prison where most of the condemned men live is actually an hour to the east.
“It just so happens that death row is in Livingston,” Stark said. “But nobody ever hears that. You just hear, ‘Oh, I'm from Huntsville, Texas,’ and they're like: ‘How much do they execute everybody?’ And that's the kind of negativity that people are trying to get away from.”
But, he added, on the rare occasions that state politicians have suggested moving the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s home base to Austin, locals have objected. They don’t want to lose the jobs. And even for the agency itself, he pointed out, the move wouldn’t make financial sense.
“One, because the rent's a lot cheaper around here than it is in Austin,” he said. “But also, TDCJ is part of the community lifeblood.”
When Melinda was 25, her grandmother died and left her a modest inheritance, mostly “money from illegal shit,” Melinda said. But as soon as she left the bank with cash in hand, she realized: Her deepest roots in Trinity were gone. Finally, she could look for jobs elsewhere — and the Texas prison system was hiring.
Melinda started working there in 1998, as a clerk at the Estelle Unit in Huntsville, where she kept track of housing assignments. For once, she said, it felt like the work she did mattered.But at the same time, she and her husband began to drift apart, and before long, she met a sergeant named Wayne Brewer, who was drawn by her sassy attitude.
With his steady blue-gray eyes and ready laugh, he was the calm to her chaos. Soon they moved in together and spent the next few years getting promoted through the system, sometimes living as a couple at the units where he worked and sometimes living apart when he was assigned to prisons spread out across East Texas.“It was a little bit like a cult,” Melinda said. “You had to be willing to move all over the state and put the agency above your family.”
The sacrifices paid off in 2018 when Wayne became regional director for the Huntsville area. It was one of the top positions in town, and it carried a six-figure salary that would go a long way in East Texas. Melinda remembers the exact moment she found out: One of the agency’s top officials called to break the news and told her, “Now, you’re the First Lady of Huntsville.”
By that point, Melinda had moved up in the agency, too, overseeing the maintenance and construction in more than 100 prisons across the state. She worked out of a Huntsville office that had been a Sears at the local mall, before most of the storefronts were rented out to the expanding prison bureaucracy. Together, she and Wayne started to move into that white and brick house across from the prison known as “the Walls,” heading out to the townhouse by the lake for weekend escapes.
Whenever Melinda went out in town, she’d run into people who recognized her, even if she didn’t know them. More than once, she got pulled over and the police asked if she was related to Wayne Brewer — then let her off with a warning when she said yes.
But then in 2019 came the Easter morning fight, and a few weeks later, Kathy reached out with a complaint: She said Melinda and Wayne hadn’t paid her. Melinda said she had. The allegation set off a series of nasty texts and Facebook messages that Kathy says ended when she lobbed a terse threat: “I still have your computer.”
The computer in question was a broken device Melinda had tossed in the backyard burn pile of Kathy’s Trinity home four years earlier, when the two were briefly on better terms. According to Kathy, it was a stolen prison computer containing evidence of embezzlement. According to Melinda, it was just her own beat-up machine she needed to throw out — she just told her mother it was prison property so Kathy wouldn’t try to break into it.
Either way, after that texted threat, Melinda warned Wayne, and he called investigators with the prison system’s inspector general to warn them they’d probably be getting a false tip about a burned computer. The investigators got an earful, including allegations that Wayne and Melinda had improperly made prisoners build furniture for the trailer.
That tip didn’t lead anywhere, but one about Kathy did. A longtime prison employee named Karen Prestwood told investigators that she’d met Kathy at the local Tractor Supply Co. to buy 100 amphetamine pills for $500, and had a check stub she said proved it, according to court filings. Her co-worker, business analyst Lonna Britt, offered a similar story, saying her deal had been done in a prison parking lot. She handed over copies of her texts, along with 38.5 pills she never took. Both women declined to comment.
Even though they didn’t catch Kathy with any pills, agency investigators parked outside her home in Trinity on June 26, ready to make an arrest. Before they got out of the car, Kathy’s husband Gary spotted their SUV parked near the mailbox and strolled down the driveway to ask some questions. “A lot of stealing goes on out here,” he told me at the time. “That’s what I thought it was.” Realizing they’d been made, investigators drove away. Gary jumped in his own car wearing nothing but a pair of basketball shorts, and chased them more than eight miles into town, in a bizarre reverse police chase.
When the investigators finally pulled over in a NAPA Auto Parts parking lot, Gary drove in behind them and the plainclothesmen leaped out to arrest him — not for drugs, but for illegally possessing a firearm. Both he and Kathy maintained she actually made the purchase a few weeks earlier, and he’d only come along for the ride.
“Gary hasn’t touched a gun in years,” Kathy said afterward. “I, however, love guns.”
The investigators searched Kathy’s house. They seized her cell phone, scoured the backyard burn pile, and took all the guns locked in a safe room before hauling her off to jail on a drug charge: selling pills in a school zone. The prison parking lot, it turned out, was 551 feet from a daycare — and that made the case a first-degree felony.
Kathy has consistently maintained that she did not sell drugs to the two women, whose husbands were both prison officials. And, she said, she thinks it’s fishy that neither of her accusers faced criminal charges — though they were both fired. Kathy said she thinks Melinda set her up in retaliation for that veiled threat about the scorched computer.
“I was trying to get money out of her,” Kathy said. “That’s why she started all this shit!”
Melinda, of course, denies this.
At the time, Deputy Inspector General Joe Buttitta, who has since retired, said his investigators did not uncover evidence of wrongdoing or illegal activity by Melinda or her husband. Gary’s dramatic arrest never led to any charges, though he lost his job while he was in jail and he and Kathy had to sell the yellow ranch house. As the months dragged by with no news from the courts, it started to seem like Kathy’s case might fade away. Then, almost two years after the Easter fight that started it all, Kathy got the news: She’d been indicted by a grand jury. The case has yet to be resolved.
There were two other casualties of the conflict: Wayne and Melinda’s jobs. Not long after Kathy’s arrest, Wayne retired amid rumors of his imminent dismissal. Melinda, who had far fewer years with the agency, was let go — “administratively separated” in the bureaucratic lingo of prison officials.
“I worked so hard to get away from my criminal family,” Melinda told me afterward, “and my criminal family destroyed me.”
For most of the two decades Melinda worked for the prison system, Texas kept more people behind bars than any other state. Over a two-year period in the mid-1990s, the incarcerated population nearly doubled as the state cut back on parole releases and opened 43 new prisons.
Even Huntsville, the original prison town, got another facility — though a lot of the new lockups were in West and North Texas. Some insiders said the far-flung units diluted Huntsville’s power, though the sheer size of the system might have played a role as well. By the time the prison population peaked in 2010, more than 170,000 people were behind bars.
But also by that time, Texas, like many other states, had begun to realize that mass incarceration was expensive and started making incremental changes. The prison population slowly declined, sinking to less than 150,000 by the time Melinda left in 2019. It was still the largest prison system outside the federal government, but the size of Huntsville’s kingdom was finally shrinking.
Meanwhile, the rest of Huntsville was growing, buoyed by the expanding local university and encroaching suburban sprawl moving north from Houston and Conroe.
Then came the pandemic. Suddenly, prisons were a public health threat — both to the people inside them and the surrounding residents. By mid-2020, Huntsville turned into a COVID-19 hotspot, in part because of the hundreds of cases circulating inside its prisons. To stop the spreading disease, prison officials shut down visitation and stopped accepting new inmates. As arrests plummeted and courts ground to a halt, the pandemic achieved something the state’s Democrats never could: Rapid decarceration. By 2021, the Texas prison population had decreased by almost 25,000 people and the state had closed half a dozen units — though, perhaps predictably, none in Huntsville.
When Melinda walked out of work on her last day after 21 years, she said, it felt like she left behind a part of herself. The worst part was that she didn’t quite know why it all happened.
Jeremy Desel, a prison spokesman who has also since left the agency, blamed the decision on questions about the couple’s integrity that came up in the course of an internal investigation. “Any action on the part of an employee that jeopardizes the integrity or security of TDCJ institutions, calls into question the employee’s ability to perform effectively and efficiently in the employee’s position, or casts doubt upon the integrity of the employee is prohibited,” he said in July 2019. But he refused to specify what they had allegedly done or what the investigation found.
Melinda later learned that prison officials told the state unemployment agency that they may have fired her because of bad publicity stemming from news articles about her mother’s arrest. But those articles weren’t published until weeks after she lost her job, and the state’s workforce commission eventually said the agency was wrong and sided with Melinda.
After she and Wayne lost their jobs, they had to move their belongings out of the regional director’s house, uprooting their lives under a cloud of suspicion. A few weeks later, they sold Chasin’ Tail and started living full-time at the lakeside townhouse where we first met. That day, in September 2019, she was still bitter.
Five months later, when we met at a diner near Lake Conroe, she had moved on to grief. The February sky crackled with lightning and opened up into a torrential downpour as she told me about those first dark months after everything fell apart, after she finally realized she was no longer the First Lady of Huntsville.
When I asked her if she missed working for the prison system, she cried so hard I thought that she might crackle with lightning, too.
“I lost me,” she sobbed, while a concerned waiter checked on us again and again.
After that, the pandemic hit and I didn’t see her for a year and half. When we met again, at a lakeside Mexican restaurant, she greeted me in the parking lot with a bright smile and swift hug. This time, she brought her husband, and ordered queso and beer. When she talked, she burbled. And when she ranted, it was about bad neighbors and nosy game wardens. She wasn’t in on the Huntsville gossip anymore, and she didn’t care.
As she told me about her new job — accounting work at a ritzy golf course — I watched her face light up. Finally, it seemed, she’d moved on, come up from under the water and let go of Huntsville.
As Melinda talked, Wayne cut in from time to time, and they finished each other’s sentences and ended each other’s stories. Halfway through lunch, Wayne looked up from his food and locked eyes with me.
“It was a blessing to get out of there,” he said.
For a beat, Melinda fell into a rare moment of silence. Then she nodded in agreement.
Edited by Leslie Eaton. Art Direction by Marci Suela and Celina Fang. Design by Elan Kiderman Ullendorff. Development by Ryan Murphy. Maps by Katie Park. Photography by Bryan Schutmaat.
Map sources: U.S. Census Bureau, Texas Department of Transportation, U.S. Geological Survey, Natural Earth and Google Maps.