As Texas' prison population has declined in recent years and criminal justice advocates and fiscal conservatives alike have questioned the wisdom of locking people up for minor, non-violent drug and property offenses, Dawson State Jail has become a prime target for closure.
Last month, a couple dozen sentencing reform and human rights groups sent a letter urging lawmakers to shutter the privately run facility, which hulks over the Trinity River levee on Commerce Street just west of downtown. The main reason they cited was a troubling string of deaths at the facility tied to inadequate medical care, including that of a four-day-old infant who was born to an inmate in a toilet with no medical personnel present.
Two national groups that signed onto the letter, Grassroots Leadership and The Sentencing Project, released a brief report this morning further detailing the reasons for closure.
The main reason is that the state jail population has dropped steadily over the past several years -- from 13,800 in 2007 to 11,700 in 2012, or about the 2,200-inmate capacity of Dawson -- and will likely continue to do so as Texas expands its use of community supervision, treatment programs, and other prison alternatives for nonviolent drug and property offenders, who make up 84 percent of the state jail population.
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That leaves Texas with more state jail space than it needs and, given Dawson's spotty record providing medical care and the fact that the state's contract with CCA is up for renewal on August 31, it's the most obvious facility to give the ax.
The state would reap a number of benefits if the legislature lets the CCA contract expire this summer and zeroes out Dawson's budget as the report proposes. First would be the potential savings of the $24 million per year the facility costs to operate. There'd also be extra revenue from selling a lucrative piece of property near downtown. The report predicts it could be home to private development, it notes in passing that New York has turned some former prisons into wildlife sanctuaries. And finally, such a move would be another common sense step toward reforming the criminal justice system's treatment of nonviolent offenders.
To underline the points highlighted in the report, the
Texas Criminal Justice Coalition Grassroots Leadership will host a vigil outside Dawson on March 7 to call for its closure.