Mere blocks away from Huntsville’s Walls Unit sits the Sam Houston State University George J. Beto Criminal Justice Building, whose doors hundreds of Bearkats pass through every day. Although the most modern of information is shared within the red brick walls, the history of the building dates back more than 40 years.
Construction on the CJ building began in the 1970s and was erected entirely by inmate labor, which reduced costs dramatically. According to buildingshsu.com, there is a display in the building honoring the inmates who helped with construction, highlighting the irony in the fact that convicted felons built a facility that would prepare future generations for careers in law enforcement.
“They did an outstanding job,” criminal justice professor Larry Hoover said. “Rumors of deliberate sabotage and so forth were not true. The building was completed flawlessly, essentially, and has been a great aspect to the criminal justice center.”
Inside of the display sits the hat of one of the inmates who assisted with the construction.
Criminal justice professor Emeritus Charles Friel, Ph.D., predicts that the inmate was one of the last ones to work on the building and more than likely forgot his cap after a long day, which he found in one of the classrooms the day the center opened.
The interior of the criminal justice building is home to multiple classrooms and offices, a 500-seat auditorium and courtroom.
“I think the primary key to the building is that it’s self-contained,” Hoover said. “We have personnel here for training from various criminal justice professions, and that provides an opportunity for interaction and for students to see practitioners on an informal basis. Several of the classroom’s mock-trials are held there, so the courtroom adds linkage from the building to the real world.”
The building itself was dedicated to an acclaimed expert in criminal justice.
George Beto, Ph.D., whose name is displayed in silver letters at the building’s entrance, was laid to rest in Austin, more than 20 years ago. However, his legacy in the criminal justice department remains prominent.
Before finding his way to SHSU, Beto was the director of the Texas Department of Corrections for several years, where he was presented with numerous awards and achievements, including recognition for his support for the Windham School District, which serves Texas state prisoners.
In 1972, Beto resigned from TDC and began his teaching career in criminal justice at SHSU.
Since then, the SHSU criminal justice department has stood out not only in Texas but in the nation.
“[SHSU] is a leader in the field of academic study of criminal justice,” Hoover said. “This is one of the first programs to offer a doctoral degree in the field. We have over 300 doctoral graduates that position responsibility not only throughout the United States but throughout the world.”
This April, the criminal justice department will celebrate their 50th anniversary by honoring the academic success that has been achieved throughout the administration.
“We intend to have both an academic side to the celebration and a pure reflection of the accomplishments and the achievements of the center,” Hoover said. “We’re inviting alumni back, donors to come in and others who have been very supportive in sponsoring internships and hiring graduates. We’re looking forward to a memorable 50th anniversary celebration.”
To top off the celebration, the department will be opening a 25-year-old time capsule that contains descriptions of programs and a photograph album that depicts a day in the life of a criminal justice student, among other things.
“The intent always was that every 25 years, the time capsule would be open for an opportunity for individuals associated with the college of criminal justice to view what was put into the time capsule 25 years before, and then add more to it,” Hoover said.