I'd considered Dawson a good candidate for potential closure because it's located in an area where the city has proposed a major redevelopment project and the local chamber of commerce types wanted it gone. (Legislation approved last year would allow TDCJ to trade the land to the city for a comparable piece of property within 20 miles of the facility.) What's more, the building isn't particularly suited for the purpose: it's a high-rise built in a river bottom where TDCJ must pay for air-conditioning in the summer, making its per-prisoner costs higher than other, comparable facilities.
This is a function of TDCJ refusing even to countenance the possibility of prison closures to save money. The agency has said they'll cut programming, medical care, and eliminate up to 7,300 staff before considering closure of a single unit. That's not a realistic (or safe) suggestion, but as long as legislators allow the agency to set the budget cutting agenda, they're clearly going to prioritize maximum spending on bricks and mortar while focusing cuts on their employees and treatment and diversion programs. If legislators want those priorities changed. budget writers must do it themselves - the agency so far has only been willing to suggest highly unrealistic spending reductions that actually would boost costs in other parts of the system.
I wrote earlier this year that TDCJ shouldn't be allowed to make decisions during the interim that lock in long-term spending that the Lege might need to cut, but that's exactly what they've done here. Clearly the state cannot substantially cut incarceration levels without policy changes in addition to line-item cuts in the agency budget. But given that budget cuts must be made, that only argues for legislators to begin changing policies, preferably before the agency takes any more unilateral moves to hem in the Legislature's options for reducing corrections spending.
Related Grits posts:
- Should TDCJ be renewing contracts that might be subject to budget cuts?
- Dallas, Sugar Land locals to TDCJ: Please move
- A/C bills one more reason to close Dawson state jail
- Private prison contract renewals may cost Texas additional millions
- Which prison units should Texas close? Private contracts, security concerns may factor in