Over the last weeks, advocates to close the Dawson State Jail (including my organization, Grassroots Leadership) have made major headway with a promising vote in the legislature, a vigil, and a lawsuit:
1) Last Monday, we learned that movement to close Dawson is progressing through the Texas state legislature. In a press release, Senator Royce West of Dallas stated that
[...] the Senate Finance Committee followed the recommendations of a criminal justice workgroup that proposed the non-renewal of the contract with the Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) that currently has an agreement with the state for the operation of the Dawson State Jail facility.
West called the Senate Finance Committee recommendation to end the state's with contract Corrections Corporation of America a "very important step."
2) Community members from Dallas and Austin -- including representatives from Grassroots Leadership, Texas Inmate Families Association, Texas Civil Rights Project, ACLU Texas, AFSMCE, and Occupy Dallas -- convened outside the Dawson State Jail on Thursday for a candlelight vigil. On the eve of International Women's Day, they invoked the memory of the women and infant who died inside this awful facility and called on legislators to shut it down. Journalist Ginger Allen of CBS DFW, who has been covering the facility for months, reported live from the scene:
3) Autumn Miller, whose baby lived only four days after a tragic pregnancy at Dawson, is filing a lawsuit alleging cruel and unusual punishment. The courageous young woman told her story in an interview with Ginger Allen and with KERA (NPR in North Texas), detailing how her cries for help were ignored from the time she asked for a pregnancy test until she found herself giving birth alone in the toilet of a holding cell.
Texans can contact their legislators about the issue here, and advocates have started using #CloseDawson on Twitter to send updates around the campaign. With Senator Whitmire giving closure a "better than 50-50" shot and Senator West declaring that "by the end of the session, it will be closed," there seems to be a distinct possibility that Texas may close a private prison this year.
In 2010, a County Commissioner in Harris County suggested looking into privatizing the jail as a way to cut costs; a request for proposals yielded four bids, of which only CCA's was found viable. TPB reported on the potential privatization as our biggest story of 2011. Now, the Houston Chronicle has uncovered a confidential memo from February 11 in which "[the] evaluation committee concluded that the potential benefit is not sufficient reason to make a change at this time."
From The Houston Chronicle (Mike Morris, "Internal review rejects idea of privatizing county jail," February 21, 2013):
Privatizing the Harris County jail would be risky and may not result in savings, according to an internal county memo recommending that Commissioners Court keep the state's largest lockup in Sheriff Adrian Garcia's hands.
The memo delivered the recommendations of an internal review, which found that the potential cost savings from turning the facility over to Corrections Corporation of America would not be guarateed and that privatization could have "uncertain effects" on the wellbeing of guards and people incarcerated there. County Judge Ed Emmitt expressed concern that privately-run facilities lack the kind of official oversight needed and that the "public wants to have somebody who's responsible for that jail and not have some private entity run it."
In addition to running the largest county jail in Texas, Harris County has the largest sherriff's department in the state with over 4,000 employees. Sherriff Garcia is confident in his department's capabilities, saying that they "have improved operations while saving money, we've passed jail inspections, we haven't laid off any employees and we've reduced in-custody deaths."
At the time the article was published, CCA said that it had not received any official reports.
In the face of pending budget cuts due to sequestration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has released at least 800 people from detention. ICE has identified those released as “noncriminals and other low-risk offenders who do not have serious criminal histories.” Manuel Perez, currently detained at CEC-run Polk County Detention Center, has stated that “Lots of us are getting out who were brought in for driving without a license or other small things." The alternatives to detention ICE is implementing are not only more humane but also more much cost effective; the National Immigration Forum estimates that, while detention can cost up to $163 a day per individual, alternatives range from $14 to as little as 13 cents, a 90 to 99 percent savings. They work, too: Human Rights First found that 96 percent of members of Alterntives to Detention programs attend their final hearings.
We are particularly glad to hear that immigrants are being released from two Texas detention centers recently highlighted in the Expose and Close campaign as among the worst in the nation: the San Antonio Express News reports that 300 have been set free from the Houston Processing Center and 50 from the Polk County Detention Center. While the Austin American Statesman reports that neither the Williamson County Sheriff nor facility officials have commented, we've heard from inside the Hutto Detention Center that a number of women have in fact been released without bond.
These actions have raised questions about the 34,000 beds that ICE claims they are mandated to fill. Emily Tucker of the Detention Watch Network told NPR that ICE has "proven that they don't even believe that themselves by releasing these folks."
While this is good news, it's important to remember that 30,773 people are still detained solely for their immigration status, half of whom are locked up in private prisons. Hopefully, these releases signal a move towards a more humane immigration system.
At a press conference on Monday at the Texas State Capitol, representatives from Grassroots Leadership (a sponsor of this blog), the Texas Civil Rights Project, the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, and the Texas Inmate Families Association announced the release of a new report calling for closure of the Dawson State Jail. Authored by Nicole Porter of the Sentencing Project (and blogger for TPB), the report recommends that the Texas Department of Criminal Justice not renew its contract with CCA for the facility in August, that state appropriators should zero out its funding, and that Texas focus on community supervision rather than incarceration.
In response to reports of atrocious conditions within the facility, momentum to close Dawson has been building for months. Now, Senator Whitmire is telling reporters that he sees a "50/50" chance of the facility closing during this legeslative session. Senator West, whose district includes the Dawson Jail, joined the call for closure saying that he would "be shocked if [his] collegues didn't support [him] on this issue." (Click the link to see an interview with Sen. West and coverage from the press conference.)
Next Thursday, on the eve of International Women's Day, a candlelight vigil will take place outside of the Dawson State Jail, commemorating the womens' lives lost in the facility.
A petition has also been launched at the Nation Inside, reading in part:
We, the undersigned individuals, encourage lawmakers to close the Dawson State Jail in Dallas, Texas. We join our voices to those of 25 state and national civil rights, faith, criminal justice reform, and labor organizations that recently called for the facility to be closed. [...]