The Corrections Corporation of America, a company that runs 12 of the state's prison facilities, is facing a lawsuit from a publication that says it is failing to release information related to deaths and health care at the Dawson State Jail in Dallas.
The prison is one of several that the Legislature is considering for closure because of a declining prison population.
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday with a state district court in Travis County, seeks to force the company to comply with an open records request that was filed in early March by Prison Legal News, a monthly magazine based in Vermont that focuses on prisoner rights. The company has not complied with the request, spurring the magazine to bring a suit against it and, in the words of the petition, "enforce its right under state law to investigate patterns of unconscionable and unconstitutional conditions in corporate-run jails."
CCA spokesman Steve Owen said in an email that the company "will review the complaint and determine the appropriate course of action."
"This lawsuit is about the truth," Brian McGiverin, a Texas Civil Rights Project lawyer representing Prison Legal News, said Wednesday at a news conference. "They hide the truth because they know the truth is horrifying."
Lawmakers are considering whether to close Dawson State Jail in the current budget, an effort spearheaded by state Sen. John Whitmire, D-Houston, along with the Texas chapter of the American Federation of State County Municipal Employees, which represents prison workers.
A letter from numerous criminal justice advocacy organizations referred to "inadequate medical care and a rash of preventable deaths at the Dawson State Jail illustrate problems at this facility."
In response, Owen told The Texas Tribune: "It’s unfortunate that these organizations are so closed-minded when it comes to facts and perspectives that might challenge their political agendas. CCA simply provides safe inmate housing and quality rehabilitation programming at a cost savings to Texas taxpayers."
The state Senate's version of the coming budget would remove funding from the Dawson State Jail, which houses inmates convicted of low-level offenses for one to two years, while the House's budget would not. The issue is currently being debated by a conference committee of lawmakers.
Several lawmakers have mentioned the accusations of mistreatment at the facility as reasons they believe it should be closed. Last month, state Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, told a radio station he was moved to oppose continued funding for the facility by the story of a 4-day old baby girl, who died last year at the facility after an inmate gave birth to her in a toilet.
Owen responded by saying that medical personnel is provided by the University of Texas Medical Branch through its contract with the Texas Department of Criminal Justice. "Although we are not the healthcare service provider at the facility, we take our role in the process of providing inmates access to care very seriously," Owen said in a written statement.
West responded, "That’s not a good answer when in fact under your contract you are supposed to coordinate medical care for the people who are in your custody."
The University of Texas Medical Branch declined through a spokesperson to comment on the matter.
"The choice to bring doctors to any particular inmate, or a scene where there might be an emergency, those decisions are made by guards employed by this private corporation," McGiverin said at the news conference. He said his civil rights group has sued the company in the past, but this is the first time it is over a public information request.