A New Jail for Travis County?

County moves forward with new women's building despite vote to delay and community outcry

Illustration by Jason Stout

Lauren Johnson knows what it's like to be booked into Travis County Jail and to feel the world spinning as her freedom, her community, and her privacy disappear. She knows what it's like for her pregnant body to ache on a thin jail mattress and to give birth with a guard at her hospital room door. And what it's like to hand over custody of her firstborn child just 48 hours later. She knows what it's like to relapse years later and to return to jail, leaving behind three kids, missing every birthday and every holiday, and losing her identity as the glue that held everyone together. And she knows what it's like to get out again, to get clean again, and to spend the rest of her life trying to fix the system.

The new women’s building will cost $270,000 per bed and $635 per square foot.

"Incarceration doesn't create an environment for people to recover," Johnson says from her office at the American Civil Liberties Union. "None of the solutions to the criminal justice system live inside the criminal justice system. It's all about having access to treatment, mental health services, employment, housing. Crime is a symptom of the problem; it is not our problem."

Johnson focuses her ACLU work on statewide legislation but has recently been caught up in a contentious local issue: whether or not Travis County should build a new women's jail. The planned project is just the first part of a $620 million correctional campus overhaul. Johnson cycled in and out of the jail about four times over the course of a decade, and says the county's plans – and the community's pushback – have left her feeling "split in half." Women are left behind in every area of the criminal justice system, so she is attracted to the idea of giving them a "nice, new, shiny thing." But she also understands the advocates who want the county to delay the new building (which would have the capacity to incarcerate more women) until it reduces the female jail population.

"Incarceration doesn't create an environment for people to recover," says Lauren Johnson, a former inmate who now works for the ACLU. "None of the solutions to the criminal justice system live inside the criminal justice system." (Photo by Jana Birchum)

The sizable coalition of criminal justice organizations has been speaking out against the jail since last September, a process that has sometimes been tense. At a stakeholders' meeting in March, for example, an advocate commented that Travis County is no longer on the cutting edge with criminal justice, leading County Judge Sarah Eckhardt to plead that they not make the county the "villain" and "throw us in with every other county." But Travis County is indeed following concerning nationwide trends of jailing more women. "We've got a lot of work to do," Johnson says, "even for a progressive town. There are things that we could be doing today that prevent people from going into the criminal justice system that we're not doing."

By late March it seemed that the Travis County Commissioners Court was open to the advocates' concerns when it passed a motion to delay the facility's funding for one year. But, just five months later, the project has reappeared in the county's preliminary 2019 budget, on which the court will vote on Sept. 25.

What a County Wants

Texas county jails house people who have been charged with crimes and are awaiting trial and aren't eligible for or can't afford bond, as well as people convicted of misdemeanors, which have fairly short sentences. About 2,079 men and 316 women are incarcerated in Travis County, primarily at its sprawling, 130-acre correctional campus in Del Valle, not far from the airport. This is where the county wants to build a new women's facility to accommodate its female population, which is growing and characterized by high rates of mental illness.

The Travis County Sheriff's Office has been housing women in four different buildings for just seven months, and it now cites this spread-out situation as a major flaw of the current setup. I toured three of the buildings with Major Nelda "Sally" Peña, the first woman to oversee the jail system in the county's history. Walking the campus, Peña smiles when she talks about her 27-year career with TCSO and her belief in the mission. "What we do, we help them manage their stress while they're navigating through the legal system," she says. "We help them when they come back, in a sense, home. This is their home away from home while they're here."

It takes about seven minutes for us to arrive at Building 3, a brown brick, two-level structure that until recently served as the campus' main women's facility. Every­thing about it is old and irrefutably institutional, and the women inside appear unhappy. Peña points out the lack of natural lighting and pending roof and HVAC repairs that will cost hundreds of thousands of dollars. Though several commissioners have noted Building 3's condition as support for the new project – Eckhardt recently told me the county has "a constitutional obligation to provide a jail, and the current jail is a piece of crap" – it won't be torn down for at least another 10 years.

Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt (Photo by John Anderson)
Eckhardt said the county has “a constitutional obligation to provide a jail, and the current jail is a piece of crap.”

Our tour then heads next door to the campus' newest and largest facility, completed in 2009. Women now occupy three units (out of 26), which are completely separate from the male units per Texas law. Inside, the paint is fresher and brighter, the steel furnishings newer, and a few windows let in some sunlight. The women congregate at tables, talking and braiding hair. Unlike Building 3, the officers are stationed within the housing area instead of in separate pods. This "direct supervision" is currently the trend in the corrections industry and something Peña wants in the new building. "It's a relationship," she explains. "They all know each other. If someone gets into it, [the officer] has to be the teacher, she has to be the disciplinarian, she has to be the counselor."

Peña and Sheriff Sally Hernandez, as well as TCSO and county staff, envision a single building that houses all women, a place with no fenced upper tier, more light, softer colors, and a noninstitutional design – things that help women with their stress, not add to it. And they want classes and health care to be provided within the housing building. The campus already provides these services, but men and women must share instructors and health practitioners. They also must walk to another building for the services and sometimes pass each other and sit in the same waiting room, which TCSO says presents opportunities for verbal harassment. And because low-risk men travel unescorted, an officer must pat down and accompany women, which is personnel-intensive and, TCSO says, leads women to not participate in classes, although it has no available statistics to support the anecdotal observation (and experts I interviewed say they're not aware of evidence on the importance of programming's location).

Hernandez inherited the plan for the women's building and has made it her own, repeatedly asking the Commissioners Court to fund it. Speaking at her office on Airport Boulevard, she talks about her excitement to make an impact with the project. The current facilities have "all been built with men in mind," Hernan­dez says. "And we're so different, women are so different. We have different medical needs, we have different emotional needs, and we need to take those things into consideration." Last February, she convened a committee to advise TCSO on how to build and operate an innovative facility with gender responsiveness and trauma-informed treatments. Committee Chair Michele Deitch, a senior lecturer at the LBJ School who has worked on prison-related issues for over 30 years, says a new facility could promote a sense of dignity and rehabilitation with its design and operations. The committee is working on a report that Deitch says will be a creative breakout from traditional thinking, something to guide the county's selected design company.

When it comes to the price tag – $97 million – Hernandez says it may not be enough and is "an investment that would reduce that jail population." Looking at it that way, she says, "I think it's worth it." But Doug Smith, senior policy analyst with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, says that while good programming can reduce the likelihood that people will return to jail, "there is no evidence that a facility can reduce recidivism." Though Hernandez's committee points to the Las Colinas Women's Detention and Reentry Facility in San Diego County, Calif., as a model for women's jails, that county says the new center has decreased inmate-on-inmate assaults but has had no impact on its jail population or recidivism. According to Captain Ed Schroeder, the jail's booking criteria, implemented after a court case required the county to address jail overcrowding, has led to it taking in fewer people for misdemeanors and drug offenses.

What a Community Wants

The number of women behind bars is rising nationwide and, according to a March report from TCJC, Texas incarcerates more women than any other state. This research also shows that we're decreasing male incarceration, but filling our jails and prisons with more women, many of whom are pretrial – meaning they are presumed innocent – have mental illness, are mothers and single parents, and have experienced physical or sexual abuse (some studies put this figure as high as 98%). Travis County is not immune to these trends: though its male population has been trending slightly down­ward, the female population is rising and the number of women with mental illness has shot up by 95% in the last five years.

These statistics are why TCJC, Grassroots Leadership, Texas Appleseed, the Texas Fair Defense Project, and other organizations are pushing Travis County to pause its $97 million construction plans that call for a 30% increase in bed space for women. They say that incarcerating women removes them from their families and the jobs they need to support their children and often criminalizes their responses to their own trauma. The groups want the county to invest more in new and existing programs that divert people from entering jail, achieve a meaningful reduction in the female population, and then recalculate their capacity projections. "We aren't against better conditions," says Cate Graziani, coordinator of Grassroots Leadership's criminal justice campaigns. "But the jail should reflect those diversion strategies and be smaller than what they were initially putting forward." Commissioner Brigid Shea is the only member of the court who has expressed a desire for the capacity number to come down.

While Hernandez's advisory committee has encouraged separate diversion discussions, it doesn't take on the topic. Johnson of the ACLU and Annette Price, both formerly incarcerated women, are members of the committee. Price, the Texas Advocates for Justice statewide coordinator at Grassroots, hopes to provide the county with insight on her experience and to bring better conditions to women behind bars. Still, she says it would benefit the women more to focus on the drivers of incarceration. "I think the whole point of a committee," she says, "was to pacify and say, 'Well, we have a committee going that's working toward making things better.' I don't think they actually stopped for one second to [consider] no, we're not going to build the jail."

Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez (Photo by John Anderson)

According to Nancy Fishman – project director of the Center on Sentencing and Corrections at the Vera Institute for Justice, in New York – the "crucial first step" before building any structure should be deeply analyzing the current female jail population and the surrounding system. This should determine who's coming in, how long they stay, how cases are processed, and who is pretrial because of an inability to afford bail, all of which can improve diversion and the plan for a facility's size and design. Failing to do such an analysis before approving a building, Fishman says, would be a "very, very costly" missed opportunity. "Evidence across the country suggests that if you build a bigger facility and you don't actually address the drivers of incarceration, the facility will simply fill," she explains. "I think that's the challenge facing a lot of communities around the country and why a lot of communities, as they did in Austin, push back."

While Deitch says the sheriff's committee saw some early data on the female population, more in-depth information would be "very helpful," and the members have "been clear that it is important for a full analysis to happen." But when I asked TCSO for an update on such an analysis, it said the committee "is not tasked with how many or what types of beds" the new facility will have. Travis County staff, meanwhile, sent me basic statistics from 2013-17 and asked me as well as Grass­roots to submit a formal data request and allow for up to 30 days for an analysis to be done. In response to a public records request, TCSO did send me information on the female population, which shows that 70% is pretrial, almost half have a mental health flag, and the most common charges are possession of a controlled substance under 1 gram, probation revocation, and misdemeanor assault of a family member. And, 30% of the inmates are black, compared with just 9% of the Travis County population.

Ranjana Natarajan, director of the Uni­ver­sity of Texas School of Law's Civil Rights Clinic, says the county "runs the risk of missing the forest for the trees" by failing to prioritize its planning process. Natarajan suggests it consider the approach used by Oklahoma County, Okla., which recently had an overcrowded and unsafe jail. Instead of jumping to plans for a bigger building, the county initiated a task force of city, county, business, and nonprofit stakeholders that produced a final report with suggestions for diverting people with lower-level charges, mental illness, and substance abuse; improving the courts' case processing; and not jailing those who can't pay fines and fees. The county still has not built a new facility and has cut its jail bed days in half.

Unlike this conservative jurisdiction, Travis County's only correctional facilities study was done by the consulting firm CGL, which is part of a multi-billion dollar industry of special interests that thrives on the cycle of prison and jail construction. (The county also recently selected CGL and its parent company Hunt to build its new courthouse.) CGL's analyses included no feedback from outside organizations, and the county is asking the Texas Attorney General to protect it from releasing draft documents shared between county staff and CGL, as requested through the public information law. The county and city have a Jail Population Monitoring Group and the Criminal Justice Coordinating Council, but these include no community leaders or organizations. While the county has applied for a MacArthur grant to hire a diversion consultant and its Justice Planning department has met with the Grassroots-led coalition several times in the past year, these discussions began with a focus on a new building, and advocates say the pace and productivity have been slow.

Annette Price, Cate Graziani, and Holly Kirby of Grassroots Leadership (Photo by John Anderson)

Many law enforcement and criminal justice agencies impact the number of people in the system, and these entities have a number of diversion programs, as evidenced by the county's recent asset map requested by Commissioner Jeff Travillion. Grassroots Leadership is also working with the city of Austin and Austin Police Department on its Freedom City initiative that will promote cite-and-release for certain low-level offenses, and they think this could have an impact, although limited, on the jail population. County Attorney David Escamilla, whose office handles misdemeanors, says they are considering how prosecutors could review and divert certain cite-and-release eligible offenses, particularly driving with an invalid license and petty theft. The District Attorney's Office, meanwhile, has two programs for pretrial diversion, as well as a new State Jail Felony Court that is intended to address the increase in these cases. The county does not know the efficacy of these programs, but its male jail population is decreasing while the female population continues to rise.

What a County Spends

The new women's building will cost $270,000 per bed and $635 per square foot. The county's 2009 jail, which houses about 1,350 inmates, cost $71 million – $53,000 per bed and $275 per square foot. Travis County's Planning & Budget Office says that while it should be less expensive to build a more normative women's facility, the programming and health care space add to the cost. While the cost per square foot is in line with that of Las Colinas in California, this center consists of 20 buildings and 46 acres and Schroeder says it was so expensive because of the "overall size of the complex."

Some in the community are concerned that Travis County is footing the bill with property taxes but isn't sending the project to voters in a bond election. It will instead use controversial certificates of obligation, which local governments sometimes depend on for emergency infrastructure and standard operational projects, most often for critical or emerging items. Sometimes the project's cost impacts elected officials' views on whether or not to use COs. Hays County, for example, recently sent a $100 million jail project to a bond election so taxpayers could "make the decision at the polls," said County Judge Bert Cobb. Likewise, in the early 2000s, then-Travis County Judge Sam Biscoe expressed reservations against using COs to fund the newest jail building. The court ended up sending $23 million to a successful bond election and using COs for the part of the project that addressed the jail's more urgent soon-to-expire temporary housing variance from the Texas Commission on Jail Standards due to overflow of the male population.

While it is legal to use COs for funding, the decision is notable because this situation is inarguably less urgent than the previous jail.

In contrast, Travis County will not respond to questions about which department or elected official decided to forgo an election on the women's building. While it is legal to use COs, the decision is notable because this situation is inarguably less urgent than the previous jail. The county's planning and budget department told me that COs are being used according to the court's debt policy, adopted in 2014, that says an election can be skipped, among other reasons, if a project is legally required and penalties or fines could be imposed if the expenditure is not made. But the current facilities are in compliance with state jail standards, and Brandon Wood, executive director of the Texas Commission on Jail Standards, says his agency "would not simply issue a notice of noncompliance if the county does not move forward with the building." While the Travis County campus has inefficiencies, Wood notes that it's a local decision as to how to deal with that. Further muddling the narrative, Eckhardt told me COs are being used because it would save money to avoid both a bond election and cost escalation. However, no financial analysis was done to compare the costs, as required by the court's debt policy. And, an anonymous county source told me that COs were likely used because people are feeling the burden of property taxes, and bond elections aren't as dependable as they once were, such as the failed courthouse proposition.

Local governments in Texas are taking out CO debt in increasingly larger sums, and several Texas cities, as well as Travis County, are receiving pushback on the COs. Though Travis County is the state's fifth-largest and 15th fastest-growing county, it ranks second in unpaid CO debt. Com­mis­sioners say they're comfortable with this because they manage it well and have a AAA bond rating. While Commis­sion­er Ger­ald Daugherty said he doesn't think the project is "critical" and would prefer it be sent to a bond election, all other members of the court say they are comfortable with forgoing an election because it is their state mandate to run a criminal justice system. In the past five years, 11 Texas counties have held bond elections for jail-related projects, and of eight counties I interviewed, only Bexar used COs to fund jail facilities in the last decade. Harris, Tarrant, Collin, Comal, and Hays all held successful bond elections for their jail projects, while Dallas County tapped into general revenue it had saved for transportation and major capital projects.

There is one important exception to the CO law: If 5% of a county's population files a petition against the CO-backed project, then it must be sent to voters in an election. In Travis County, such a petition would need about 61,000 signatures. The Travis County Libertarian Party says it will petition for an election because COs "are designed to circumvent the voting public" and "are an especially egregious form of government borrowing."

A view of the Travis County Correctional Complex from above. The large building with skylights is Building 12; it houses three units of women (out of 26). Directly above that is Building 3, which until recently was the main building housing women. The county is currently considering whether to construct a new women's facility, which would be located in the open space between buildings 12 and 3. (Courtesy of Travis County Sheriff's Office)

What a Community Needs

What struck me when I toured Travis County's women's facilities was the unit housing women with mental health classifications. One woman screamed at the top of her lungs constantly, while another stared blankly out the window of her door and another jumped up and down in her cell naked. Peña told me that some inmates wait 290 days or longer for beds to open in the state's mental hospitals, which are failing to keep up with demand. One of Her­nandez's campaign platforms when she ran for sheriff was decriminalizing mental illness, and she has supported relevant diversion programs, but as for those who end up in jail, she says, "we can't sacrifice or tie my hands to the immediate needs of the people that I have under my care on my watch."

According to Natarajan – whose Civil Rights Clinic published a report on reducing mental health-related deaths in Texas jails – Travis and other counties often use incarceration as a tool to address mental illness as well as substance abuse. Both she and Fishman say the data supports sustained, community-based treatment instead of coercive treatment within a jail or through drug courts. "I think it's wrongheaded to say, 'We are going to build a jail and it's not your ordinary jail because it will have treatment,'" Natarajan adds. "What you're doing is choosing a coercive form of treatment versus thinking about how to help people sustain access to treatment in the community." Natarajan wishes the county would increase its investment into public health solutions, and deepen its commitment to diversion instead of building bigger jails.

The advocate coalition has been stressing that the Austin area would have a healthier, stronger community if it followed this advice. TCJC suggests the county do a Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion program that connects low-level, nonviolent drug users with a case manager and community-based services instead of arresting them. (TCSO says it is researching this with the D.A.'s Office.) And Grassroots asked the court to send $450,000 to a new opioid walk-in center so it could treat all substance abuse issues. The Commissioners Court decided the request wasn't ready, though it did earmark $125,000 for its Justice Plan­ning Department to help flesh out the idea.

Groups throughout Austin and Travis County have a variety of mental health and substance abuse initiatives, from the St. David's Judge Guy Herman Center to Central Health's permanent housing for people experiencing homelessness. In the 2019 fiscal year, Travis County will likely spend $2.2 million to help fund three of the area's 10 pre-arrest diversion programs, including TCSO's Crisis Intervention Team as well as Integral Care's Mobile Crisis Outreach Team and Expanded MCOT, which respectively dispatch deputies and mental health professionals to respond to individuals in mental health crisis to prevent the overuse of emergency rooms, psychiatric institutions, and arrests.

Eckhardt points out that it is the responsibility of Integral Care and Central Health, a separate taxing entity, to provide services for people outside the criminal justice system. She says the county could send more to Integral Care to support the overall criminal justice mission (it currently sends $5.8 million total), "but our core function ... is to provide a jail and a court system." Grass­roots says this argument doesn't stand because the county has historically supported and is still spending money on public health initiatives, such as $890,000 for the new sobering center's renovations.

In interviews, all commissioners agreed on the importance of the county's diversion programs and public health services, but said that the women's jail facility needs to be replaced now. In fact, the time for any discussions surrounding the jail could be running out quickly as county staff is planning to speed up the process of issuing the COs by using a reimbursement resolution in late fall, something the court would have to vote on. When I asked Eckhardt if this shortened timeline conflicts with the motion that she and three commissioners approved last March – to take one year to work aggressively on jail diversion tactics – she said, "We're not obligated to take the whole year, no."

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Travis County Correctional Complex, Travis County Sheriff's Office, Sally Hernandez, Sarah Eckhardt, Lauren Johnson, Cate Graziani, Brandon Wood

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