The City Would Love to Get Its Hands On the Dawson State Jail. It'll Have to Keep Waiting.

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This morning, a reader wondered: Has the state decided if it's going to renew its contract with Corrections Corporation of America regarding operations of the Jesse R. Dawson State Jail on the Trinity River? When last we looked at the issue, the contract was set to expire January 15,  only a few days after the Legislature goes back to work in Austin. And earlier this year there had been some suggestion that given the state's budget shortfall, expected to fall somewhere between $16 and $24 billion over the next two years, the state would move to cut ties with some of its private prison and jail operators.

Only yesterday, matter of fact, Lt. Gov. David Dewhurst and Speaker Joe Straus told the state's Legislative Budget Board they want 2 to 3 percent more cut from every state agency's budget -- and that means even the Texas Department of Criminal Justice, which had offered $55 million savings in large part from "unexpended balances from various sources, a hiring freeze (excluding correctional and parole staff) and the deferral of many capital expenditures," per a memo from TDCJ Executive Director Brad Livingston.

But, no, the Dawson State  Jail ain't going anywhere: The Texas Board of Criminal Justice awarded CCA a new contract for operations of the Dawson State Jail at its meeting last month, TDCJ Director of Public Information Michelle Lyons tells Unfair Park. (Minutes from that meeting are supposed to be available; they are not.) She says the contract will run for the next seven years.

The city had hoped to gets its hands on the property sooner than later.

On June 19 of last year, Governor Rick Perry signed guilty-plea-taking Terri Hodge and state Sen. Royce West's H.B. 3438, which would allow the city to take the site if it can find a comparable piece of land within 20 miles with which to make a swap. City Manager Mary Suhm tells Unfair Park this afternoon that the legislation was initially introduced on behalf of a private property owner who owns the adjacent parking lot, valued at close to $4 million.

The owner -- Ramona, California-based CHPD-LP -- is eying the combined land for future development, says Suhm. Matter of fact, if you look at the council's January 13 agenda you'll see the council agreed to spend $26,450 -- half from the Capital Gifts Donations and Development Fund, half from 2006 bond funds -- on a replacement cost study of the Dawson State Jail. From the agenda:

The City of Dallas sought the Dawson State Jail legislation because it is currently heavily involved in the Trinity River Corridor Project. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice's (TDCJ) Dawson Facility is located in immediate proximity to one of the key areas, the planned Downtown (Reunion) Overlook, the single most important link between the Dallas Central Business District Convention Center and the Trinity River Corridor.

Morris Architects was the original designer of Dawson State Jail. Morris Architects will conduct a replacement cost study to determine the cost of "comparable property" so that City staff can work with the adjacent property owner and the TDCJ on the creation of a new jail, allowing for the opportunity of an adaptive reuse of the Dawson Jail building adjacent to the Trinity River Corridor.

Says Suhm today, the city "wants to keep our options open as we move forward with the Trinity River Corridor Project." But even if the contract hadn't been renewed, the property owner's not ready to make a move: "We're not ready to develop the property," says Suhm. "Not given the state of the world."

Several state legislators to whom I spoke today said the state needs Dawson State Jail -- and will, more than likely, for a good long while. Only months ago, there were close to 3,000 empty beds in state prisons and penitentiaries, says a staffer in the office of state Sen. John Whitmire, chair of the Criminal Justice Committee. But the November report indicates there's now a 37-bed shortfall. Says Lyons, "No, we're still below capacity, but inmate population has increased, so we don't have as many empty beds as we used to."

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