Back to mobile

Death at Dawson: Why Is Texas’ Worst State Jail Still Open?

by Published on
Fotosearch_bwbw1235

Wendy King never saw a doctor.

“Everybody in my family has some kind of uterine problem,” King told me. “My mom and three sisters have all had hysterectomies.” So when King started bleeding continuously while serving a one-year sentence at Dawson State Jail for a parole violation, she asked to see a doctor.

“I bled for nine months,” she says. “I’m sorry, I know this is gross, but I’d step in those metal showers and you could hear blood clots fall out as big as my hand.”

King says that at Dawson, prisoners must first fill out a form asking for medical care and wait five to eight days for it to be processed. “Then they schedule you for a doctor if they think you actually need to see a doctor,” she said. Getting an appointment can take another week.

The physicians’ assistants who saw King didn’t think she needed to see a doctor. They also didn’t give her an exam. “They gave me antibiotics,” she says, “They said it was something going around, a venereal disease.” With a week’s worth of antibiotics and a menstrual pad, King was sent her back to her cell.

King’s experience at the troubled Dawson State Jail, a privately run, 2,200-bed lockup for nonviolent offenders, isn’t unusual. Several inmates at the facility have complained of poor conditions and lack of access to medical care that, in a few cases, led to deaths. Dawson has come to exemplify the once unutterable, now bipartisan, cause of closing some Texas prisons.

Yesterday, two advocacy groups, The Sentencing Project and Grassroots Leadership, released a report summarizing the case for closing Dawson—primarily that it could save the state $24 million a year. That’s not counting how much the state could make by selling the property on which Dawson sits, a riverside plot in downtown Dallas that the city has been clamoring to develop for years.

Nearly every stakeholder wants Dawson closed, except, of course, for Corrections Corporation of America (CCA), which operates the jail; its contract is up for renewal in August. State lawmakers, including Sen. John Whitmire, a Houston Democrat and chair of the Senate Committee on Criminal Justice, want Dawson closed because Texas’ inmate population continues to drop and the state can save money by consolidating prisons. The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME), the union that represents prison guards, wants Dawson closed because chronic understaffing makes the facility an extremely stressful and dangerous workplace. Human-rights groups want Dawson closed because of documented, systemic failures in its health care services and the horrifying deaths of several inmates, allegedly due to medical negligence.

Compared to the seven inmates who have died at Dawson since 2004, Wendy King was lucky.

Back in her cell, she continued to bleed. “I lost so much blood, it’s amazing I could walk,” she says. Finally another inmate told a guard about King’s condition, and the guard escorted her down to the clinic personally. The physician’s assistants still didn’t allow King to see a doctor, nor, she says, did they give her an exam or run any tests. But they did give her two shots of Depo Provera within the space of a few weeks. Depo Provera is a powerful birth control hormone intended to be given only once every three months. The shots slowed King’s bleeding, and she lived with it for the next seven months, until her release in September 2011.

King never saw a doctor at Dawson. Once she was released, she sought help and her condition turned out to be non-lethal: endometriosis and a retroverted uterus. Endometriosis happens when the uterine lining grows outside the uterus, and can cause heavy bleeding and scar tissue, sometimes enough to tilt, or retrovert, the uterus. Though the condition required surgery and rehab, it could have been worse. King’s sister died in October 2011, a month after King was released, of an aggressive uterine cancer.

Unfortunately, King’s is among the least disturbing stories of medical horror at Dawson. In 2012, the Dallas news station CBS 11 ran a four-part exposé highlighting alleged medical negligence at the jail and detailing three cases:

• In 2008, a 30-year-old woman named Ashleigh Parks died of pneumonia six weeks before her release date. Her family says she was denied medication until it was too late, a claim supported by letters from other inmates who knew Parks.

Pamela Weatherby
Pamela Weatherby

• In 2010, Pamela Weatherby, 45, died while serving a year for drug possession. The lawsuit filed by Weatherby’s family against CCA details how she was taken off her prescribed insulin injections and given cheaper oral insulin, resulting in diabetic comas. Repeatedly, Weatherby was medically stabilized elsewhere and returned to Dawson, where she would again be denied her insulin injections and suffer another coma. Weatherby arrived at Dawson in May. She was dead by July. An autopsy revealed that she died from diabetes complications.

CBS 11 obtained internal documents from CCA showing that the chief of security reported that Dawson staff “didn’t follow proper procedures in that they did not call a medical professional” the night of Weatherby’s death and recommended termination of shift supervisors. But a week later, Senior Warden Raymond Byrd determined, “The actions by employees were consistent with TDCJ policy and procedure. No training needs have been identified at this time.”

• Parks and Weatherby aren’t alive to tell their stories, but Autumn Miller is. Miller didn’t know she was a few weeks pregnant when she arrived at Dawson in January 2012 to serve a year for violating her probation. But by May, she knew something was wrong. She’d been missing periods and felt sick. A mother of three, Miller recognized pregnancy. Miller is still at Dawson, but her mother, Jean Burr, told Miller’s story to CBS 11 after seeing its coverage of Weatherby’s death. Burr says that in May, Autumn Miller requested a pap smear and pregnancy test but never got them. Three weeks later, she started bleeding and cramping, feeling pressure and pain. The staff brought her to the medical unit on a stretcher, and Burr says a doctor was on a video screen—Dawson is one of many facilities that use telemedicine to save money—but that an assistant told the doctor he wasn’t needed and turned off the screen. A guard suggested, “You probably need to go poo,” gave Miller a menstrual pad and locked her in a holding cell. “The pressure was so bad that she went to the toilet,” Burr told CBS 11. Then, “the baby came out and went into the toilet and started screaming.” The baby girl, named Gracie, was just 26 weeks along. She died four days later. Miller had a tubal ligation and was allowed to stay in the hospital until Gracie passed away in her arms. Half an hour later, Miller was shipped back to Dawson, where they placed her in solitary confinement for two days, because, they said, she was on “suicide watch.”

Shebaa Green, 50, suffered from diarrhea and difficulty breathing for three days before she was allowed to go to the medical unit at Dawson last August, according to records obtained by CBS 11. She lay there unexamined for three hours before anyone arrived to look at her. Seven hours later, a doctor called an ambulance as Green struggled for breath. She died the next day of complications due to pneumonia.

CBS 11 reported that 15 women talked to the station about mistreatment they witnessed or experienced at Dawson; two said they had extremely high fevers and were left in segregation for days or weeks without ever seeing a doctor. Another, Lorraine Brown, said that, like Weatherby, she was diabetic and never received her insulin at set times. She also said she watched a woman have a stroke, become paralyzed, and be left for other inmates to bathe and care for.

Other former inmates echo these stories on Topix.com, in an online forum about Dawson State Jail conditions, though the details of their stories haven’t been confirmed.

But the case against Dawson’s medical care isn’t just anecdotal. A January 2012 audit of Dawson health services by the Texas Department of Criminal Justice found multiple systemic failures: noncompliance more than half the time in areas of preventative, gynecological, dental, HIV and elder care. They even failed the basics: conducting inspections, having enough first aid kits, providing medically appropriate diets to sick prisoners, and keeping adequate records.

CCA has issued statements in response to the CBS 11 reports, saying that its “dedicated, professional corrections staff is firmly committed to the health and safety of the inmates entrusted to our care.” They point out that CCA is not the health care provider—the state contracts with the University of Texas Medical Branch for care—but in each case of alleged mistreatment, the problem was not bad treatment but a denial of access to treatment. CCA staff at Dawson, the ones whom Senior Warden Byrd said had no training needs, are the gatekeepers. CCA says it can’t comment on the Weatherby case because of the ongoing lawsuit, and “As for the other allegations, there are no complaints on record from those inmates about their access to quality health care.”

Perhaps the most amazing part is that Dawson’s closure still isn’t a sure thing. Despite financial, practical and moral reasons for closing Dawson, the state may renew CCA’s contract for the facility in August. The simple reason is that CCA, the largest private prison company in the world, is a powerful lobbyist.

Sen. Whitmire has been trying to close Dawson since 2008. In December, Robert Wilonsky of the Dallas Morning News asked Whitmire about the chances of successfully closing Dawson this time.

Whitmire laughed, paused for a long time, and then said, “Better than 50-50.”

Emily DePrang joined The Texas Observer in 2011 as a staff writer covering criminal justice and public health. Before that, she was nonfiction editor of the Sonora Review. Before that, she was a waitress. She's also appeared in The Atlantic, Salon.com, and VICE. She holds an MFA in Nonfiction from the University of Arizona and has won some things, including the Public Service Award from the Society of Professional Journalists (2012), the National Health Journalism Fellowship from USC Annenberg (2013), and a nomination for a National Magazine Award in Reporting (2014). She still sometimes thinks about waitressing.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=635707468 Eddie Hollis Edwards

    Horrific. Something you expect in a 1970s prison exploitation B movie. Stunned and saddened. I hope more people read this.

  • gravyrug

    I have a friend that spent a few months in Dawson who said it was pretty horrific. Inmates with open sores not being treated at all, and living in dorm-like cells with a dozen or so others. It’s probably even worse than this article shows.

    • http://www.facebook.com/emily.deprang Emily DePrang

      If your friend wants to talk to me, please let her know I want to talk to her. I’m not done with this place by a long shot.

      • Calbert Cannon

        ya the guards are fucken the lil girls in the place over and over and some have had kids from jail by the guards in that place

  • http://www.facebook.com/john.rodger.7524 John Rodger

    are you kidding me! This is going on in Texas! In 2013! I am ashamed. I will do whatever I can to see that the fat cats that need to see this story, to smell the blood, to feel the pain; will do so. Nuff said
    JR

  • http://www.facebook.com/victoria.fuentes.568 Victoria Fuentes

    I WAS LOCKED UP AT DAWSON FROM 2009 TO 2011 IT WAS TERRIBLE IN THERE WHEN IT WAS COLD THEY WOULD TURN THA AIR CONDITIONERS UP AND WHEN IT WAS HOT THEY WOULD TURN UP THE HEATERS THEY DIDNT CARE THEY WOULD JUST LAUGH I HOPE THEY CLOSE IT FOR GOOD…

  • starsixtyseven

    This story inspired me to write a petition to end the horrors at Dawson. Find it here: http://forcechange.com/61273/shut-down-deathly-private-prison/#gf_1

  • fchaney

    this is a terrible place my husband is there now and when he got there they changed all his medicines now they say something wrong with his liver. every weekend when I go visit he tell me how bad it is there we need to pray for our family and love ones because they are being mis treated and done wrong

  • FirstBabyPrincess

    I am worried my 19yr old daughter is in there right now. I called the unit and a lady told me they were shutting the unit down in Aug 16,2013. I really hope so and I hope she makes it out.

    • Calbert Cannon

      ya you need to be worried and i hope she make home alive

  • erika

    I was there when Ashley died… I was 18 and very scared to be in prison in the first place… I stole my grandma’s debit card… And after Ashley it was a lady named Jenny….. I was very traumatized… That place really did me in!! I suffer from severe anxiety now which was something I never had!! It was very very very hard time for me. It makes me cry tears of joy to know that this place has closed down. And I’m very sorry for all of the families and there losses. Maybe now I can let go of some of those demons.

  • Carolyn

    Hi my name is Lola Pratiwi am from Australia with this tears joy and happiness in my heart i want to say thanks to this great man Prophet Lord of [email protected] for what him has done for me , This is my story i was 24 years old when i married my husband and we were both living together happily no fighting . but i was not comfortable with this married because after 4 years of our married i have not be able to give my husband a child doctors reveal we are capable of bearing children but we have no child to call our child so i was worry thinking of what to do so i can be able to give birth. inside all my thinking for a solution for my problems my husbands families came and they accuse me for been a barring women so i have to leave their son alone so i was been push out of my husband house so i went crying looking for a solution to my problems because i love my husband very much and don’t want to loose to another woman so all my mind think is him so i cry all nite to get back with him . one Friday evening when browsing i came across a testimony shared by miss Sharon July how this Prophet Lord helped her solved a similar problems so i decided to contact this man about my own problems and to my best surprise he also help me out and to day am happy not only because am with the man i loved but still because of i now have a child of my own .so for all this help from you Prophet Lord of [email protected] i want to say thank you once again so friends if you know you are into such or any kind of problem contact this man and i guess he will also help you out good bye

  • Carolyn

    Hello Every body

    Thank you thank you Dr iayaryi for the good work you just did in my life ,

    My name is JANICE WARLOCKS i was married to my husband for two years and we were living together happily and we both love each other for this two year not until one bad evening when i came back from work late due to scares of transportation and he started queering and he said he does not trust me anymore and he can continue with this marriage anymore and he drove me away from his house unknowingly to him that i was carrying his two month old baby inside me i tried informing he but he won,t listen to me anymore i thought i will never get him back again and i loved him so much and i promise not to rest until am able to get him back to my life so i began to look for a solution and help to get him back this was because i do not want to give birth to a fatherless child so one afternoon as i was browsing on my computer i came across a testimony shared by miss Rachael from UK how she got his ex husband back with the help of Dr iayaryi of ([email protected]) so i decided to give him a try and to my best surprise the spell this man cast on my husband work just within two days i contacted him . and today am happily living with my husband and a bouncing baby boy , with all this help rendered to me through this Dr iayaryi OF ([email protected] )i will always thank him forever and testify his goodness in my life for other,s to hear an see , once again thank you DR for bringing back my family

  • Carolyn

    Hello every body……

    I am Tracy from USA, i want to share a testimony of my life to every one. i was engaged to my lover Morgan Jude, i love him so much we have been dating for m for 5 years now we about to get married. when he went for a vacation to UK he meant a lady called Clara who charmed him with his beauty, he told me that he is no longer interested in the marriage any more. i was so confuse and seeking for help, i don’t know what to do until I met my friend Miss Jane and told her about my problem. she told me not to worry about it that she had a similar problem before and introduce me to a man called Dr omon. who cast a spell on her ex and bring him back to her after 3days. Miss Rose ask me to contact Dr omon. I contacted him to help me bring back my lover and he ask me not to worry about it that the gods of his fore-fathers will fight for me. He told me by 7days he will re-unite me and my husband together. After 7day my lover called and told me he is coming back to sought out things with me, I was surprise when I saw him and he started crying for forgiveness and that he never knew what came upon him that he will never leave me again.it was the spell that was cast on him that was working on him and we are happy married with two beautiful kids,Right now I am the happiest woman on earth for what this great spell caster did for me and my husband, you can contact Dr.omon on any problem in this world, he is very nice, here is his contact: [email protected]

  • Carolyn

    I am Mrs ANDERSON Morgan from USA, i want to share a testimony of my life to every one. i was married to my husband Barry Morgan, i love him so much we have been married for 5 years now with two kids. when he went for a vacation to France he meant a lady called Clara who en charm him with his beauty, he told me that he is no longer interested in the marriage any more. i was so confuse and seeking for help, i don’t know what to do until I met my friend Miss Rose and told her about my problem. she told me not to worry about it that she had a similar problem before and introduce me to a man called Prophet Viky. who cast a spell on her ex and bring him back to her after 3days. Miss Rose ask me to contact Prophet Viky. I contacted him to help me bring back my husband and he ask me not to worry about it that the gods of his fore-fathers will fight for me. He told me by three days he will re-unite me and my husband together. After three day my husband called and told me he is coming back to sought out things with me, I was surprise when I saw him and he started crying for forgiveness and that he never knew what came upon him that he will never leave me again or the kids.it was the spell that was casted on him that was working on him. Right now I am the happiest woman on earth for what this great spell caster did for me and my husband, you can contact Prophet Viky, on any problem in this world, he is very nice, here is his contact [email protected]