Momentum is Building to Close Dawson State Jail

For years, talk has been swirling of closing Dawson State Jail. The city of Dallas pushed for it five years ago, wanting to develop the property at the foot of the levee at Commerce Street into something more in keeping with its vision for river corridor.

State Senator John Whitmire, D-Houston, explained the bill he filed last month seeking to close the facility as a cost-cutting measure justified by a one-year, 4,000-inmate drop in the state's prison population.

There's another reason, too. Dawson seems to be a poorly run, miserable place, and that goes beyond its one-star Yelp review. The Corrections Corporation of America, which runs the facility, has been blamed for inadequate medical care that has allegedly contributed to the deaths of multiple inmates.

That's prompted some 25 state and national civil and prisoners' rights groups to add their voice to the debate. They sent a joint letter to lawmakers on Thursday urging them to shut down the jail because of its history of poor management and inhumane conditions, according to the Texas Tribune.

"Recent media accounts of inadequate medical care and a rash of preventable deaths at the Dawson State Jail illustrate problems at this facility," the letter says.

CCA rebuts the organizations' assertion, contending that it provides "safe inmate housing and quality rehabilitation programming at a cost savings to Texas taxpayers."

"It's unfortunate that these organizations are so closed-minded when it comes to facts and perspectives that might challenge their political agendas," company spokesman Steve Owen told the Tribune.

There's a more fundamental debate to be had here. Ana Yanez-Correa, director of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition and one of the letter's signers, made the argument to the Morning News that privately run prisons in general are antithetical to the goal of reducing crime "because the [companies] lose money when people are not committing crimes."

That's a philosophical question and not one the Legislature seems keen to wrestle with. But if Yanez-Correa and her peers can make a convincing argument that closure of Dawson can help the state's bottom line, then their proposal has a chance.

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