Hump Day Hall of Shame: Short-term Sentences Become Death Sentences at Dawson State Jail

Welcome to The Hump Day Hall of Shame:  Every Wednesday we highlight the private prison industry’s influence on public policy through campaign contributions, lobbying, and the revolving door of public and private corrections.

In 1997 the state of Texas built the Dawson State Jail, a Corrections Corporation of America (CCA)-operated, medium-security, co-gender prison facility in downtown Dallas.  “State jails” are prisons in Texas designed to incarcerate people convicted of nonviolent offenses serving short sentences of two years or less close to their homes.  The creation of the state jail system was a response to overcrowding in state prisons in the early 1990s.  The introduction of state jails into the corrections system was supposed to alleviate overcrowding in the more expensive, maximum security state facilities and create a greater ability to provide people convicted of nonviolent offenses supports to get them in and out of the system quickly and back into society.

At Dawson, however, far too many people have entered what are supposed to be six-month to two-year stints, and have died inside the prison of medically treatable conditions.  

The most heart-wrenching of these deaths is that of a four-day old premature baby girl who was born without any medical staff present.  While there seems to have been a code of silence for years about prisoner neglect at the facility, one Dallas journalist recently began diligently exposing these stories in an effort to seek justice for those who have died, as well as those still incarcerated there, and for the families that are affected by the mistreatment of their loved ones while they are under state supervision.

Reporter Ginger Allen of Dallas’ CBS 11 has run five exposes in 2012 alone on the deaths of women incarcerated at Dawson.  You can view all of them below.

4/26/2012
Mysterious Jail Death Raises Questions

6/14/2012
Another Family Blames Dawson State Jail For Inmate Death

7/10/2012
Premature Baby Born At Dawson Jail Without Medically Trained Personnel

10/8/2012
Guards Come Forward in Dawson Jail Investigation

11/30/2012
Woman Dies After Being Held Sick at Dawson State Jail for Days

And these are not the only stories.  In 2008, five people incarcerated at Dawson died -- more than any other state facility in Texas.  In her efforts to shine a spotlight on what’s happening at the facility, Allen has spoken to many more security guards, and current and former incarcerated people who are looking for an outlet to expose the horrific medical neglect of prisoners they have witnessed.  What comes through loud and clear in all of these stories is that these deaths were preventable, and unless someone intervenes, there is fear that more people will die unnecessarily at Dawson while serving their sentences.

At this moment, neither CCA, nor the state of Texas, have adequately accounted for, or been held responsible for these deaths or any other medical neglect of incarcerated men and women at Dawson.  It is also unclear where to point fingers.  Security operations at Dawson are managed by CCA, but medical operations are still managed by the state.  However, security staff are the front line of communication between the incarcerated and medical staff; they control whether or not a medical grievance is even documented.  On the other hand, medical staff and services are terribly insufficient, even if a prisoner is allowed access them.

No one should die a premature death while serving a sentence of any length in any incarceration or detention facility.  No matter their crime, all incarcerated people have the right to adequate medical treatment.  The fact that those incarcerated at Dawson are serving short-term sentences and are dying of medical conditions that are by-and-large preventable and treatable is particularly alarming and should have been a red flag for the state of Texas long before now.

There is some good news.  This week state Senator John Whitmire of Houston called for the closure of Dawson State Jail on the basis that statewide, Texas’ prison population has decreased by about 4,000 prisoners over the last year, and it makes good fiscal sense to close facilities if they are not needed for capacity reasons.  Dawson also sits on prime real estate in downtown Dallas, and the city has already talked with developers about tearing down the prison and making different use of the land.

We agree that Dawson should be shut down.  In our own efforts to close the facility, we will also be ensuring that the stories of those who have died there are not lost, and that our advocacy includes a critique of the for-profit private prison industry and the degree to which companies like CCA and others are able to operate with impunity in Texas and around the country.