Women's Jail Vote Postponed Amid Community Pushback
Justice advocates, formerly incarcerated women outraged by proposed expansion
On Tuesday, June 8, the Travis County Commissioners Court delayed until next week's meeting (June 15) its vote on a $4.3 million design contract, part of the $79 million estimated cost of a controversial new women's jail, a component of the county's $616 million long-range plan to rebuild and expand its Travis County Correctional Complex in Del Valle.* The project was vehemently opposed at a press conference outside the court's chambers at 700 Lavaca on Monday by a coalition of formerly incarcerated women and advocacy groups, including Grassroots Leadership, Texas Fair Defense Project, and Walking by Faith Prison Ministry.
Annette Price, co-director of Grassroots Leadership, directly addressed the commissioners: "By building this jail, you are sending a message that incarceration is better than providing needed resources to our community." She, along with other speakers who have direct experience with Travis County's justice system, suggested that diversion and reentry support programs could better use those funds to further reduce the jail population, which has already decreased substantially since the TCCC plan was adopted in 2016. The coalition is demanding both a moratorium on jail construction and a "Justice Reinvestment Plan," led by directly impacted community leaders, to replace the entire plan to rebuild the correctional complex. Price advocated for increased investment in mental health support, substance abuse treatment, housing, job training, and shelters for women affected by domestic violence.
Backers of the expansion plan, including commissioners, have supported the new construction as a way to provide improved services, including trauma-informed care, for women in the jail, which is one of the county's largest providers of mental health services. But many speakers highlighted the long-term destabilizing effects of even short stints behind bars. "[Jails] do have this lasting effect on you," said Camille Smith, who was arrested at 17.
"They're traumatizing, they mess up any opportunities that you might have. Because those conditions still exist when you get out," Smith continued. "You're still back in the struggle, only now you can't get a job, you might not be able to get your kids back." Coalition speakers agreed that only increased outreach and services outside the jail, with leadership from formerly incarcerated women, can address those root conditions and continue to reduce the number of women in jail in Travis County – only about 10-15% of the total jail population, and a number that's declined by half since the needs analysis for the TCCC plan was completed nearly seven years ago.
In a statement released after the postponement of the vote, the office of County Judge Andy Brown, who opposes the expansion, said that improving conditions doesn't require waiting for new construction: "We could ... end predatory high-cost phone fees, improve access to feminine hygiene products, and expand in-person visitation." (Some of these changes are also included in the coalition's Justice Reinvestment Plan.) On June 15, along with the vote, Brown and Commissioner Ann Howard will call on county staff to develop a new plan, "convene a working group to reduce the number of women in jail, and ... provide better physical, mental, and behavioral health care inside and outside of the jail." Brown's office calls the new jail "an expensive investment in an outdated plan that no longer makes sense for our community," but it's unclear if a majority of the five-member court would vote to reject it outright.
* Editor's note: This story has been updated since publication to more accurately reflect the specific action item on the Commissioners Court's agenda.