County Delays Funding for New Women’s Jail
A surprising turn of events
Five months of protesting by criminal justice organizations culminated Tuesday with activists and former inmates packing the Travis County Commissioners Courtroom to speak against a new women's jail building that is expected to cost nearly $100 million. Despite the groups' concerns, most commissioners had seemed ready to approve $6.6 million for the facility's design and preconstruction. But in a last-minute turn of events, they voted to delay the funding for a year in order to improve the county's efforts of reducing incarceration.
"The vote today is exactly the outcome we wanted," said Holly Kirby, director of criminal justice programs for Grassroots Leadership. "The commissioners heard community voices and listened. They made the right call today, and we are excited to get to work on driving down the jail population and investing in a healthier and safer Travis County."
After hearing the passionate and often emotional input from the community, commissioners Brigid Shea and Jeff Travillion and Judge Sarah Eckhardt voted to delay the funding. Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who initially seemed annoyed by the amount of time needed for testimony, confused the court by voicing support for a delay and then, minutes later, voting as the motion's lone dissenter. (Margaret Gómez, whose precinct is home to the jail, was absent on Tuesday.) The cost of the proposed building would come from property taxes, yet would not require voter approval because the county was going to fund it with controversial certificates of obligation.
Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez said she was "disappointed" in the court's decision. "We'll continue to operate at high standards as we always have, and will work with the Commissioners Court to address the needs of our female inmates in alternate ways." Her office has said it needs a new women's building with in-house programming and health services to reduce transporting of inmates and to better handle those with mental health issues, a subpopulation that has increased from 10% of female inmates to more than 50% in less than five years. Community members have argued that the county should instead fund facilities for detox, substance abuse treatment, and mental health, as well as reducing its high rates of pretrial detention and charges for controlled substance possession, one of the drivers of the female population. "A jail is not a therapeutic retreat center. A jail is a jail – people go there to get locked up," Kirby said, urging a halt to the construction and a concrete plan for reducing the female population, which has continued to increase despite jail population reduction efforts.
The Del Valle correctional campus currently has a maximum female capacity of 358. While the female inmate population is 310, TCSO says it needs a larger facility because women are now housed in four buildings. TCSO has typically housed women in just two buildings for years, but last month moved them into two additional buildings. This reshuffling, which was not mentioned when I toured the campus in January, sent some mentally ill female inmates to the Health Services Building, and high disciplinary risk females to a building that doesn't use bunk beds. TCSO also said it's unsafe for female inmates to receive programming and be housed in male-majority buildings, where they reside in separate units. This reasoning is perplexing because TCSO also said at Tuesday's meeting that if the women's population decreased after the new facility was built, they could fill the remaining beds with males. While there have been no female-male altercations in at least the past year, a TCSO spokeswoman said there has been "unauthorized communication."
Eckhardt's vote in support of a funding delay surprised many, as she had been the dais' most vocal supporter of the proposed jail and recently butted heads with community members at a stakeholders' meeting. As recently as Monday evening, she expressed hope that the county would end up voting for a new facility because, she said, the current layout is personnel-intensive, inefficient, and unsafe, and the main building is in "suboptimal" condition. "If we choose to delay replacing these decrepit buildings," Eckhardt said, "it doesn't mean less people will be incarcerated. It means that those who are there now will simply be in decrepit buildings."
The women's building, built in 1989 and expanded in 2001, is in compliance with state jail standards. County staff have said that this facility is one of 19 that received a failing rating, but they're referring to an assessment done as part of a needs analysis and master plan produced by CGL Companies, which builds correctional facilities across the U.S. and has been called a big player in the prison-industrial complex. CGL, whose $750,000 consulting contract with Travis County did not bar it from applying to build the facility, recently had to pay a settlement to Mississippi's attorney general for allegedly bribing county officials in that state to support correctional facility contracts.