Commissioners Court Puts Women’s Jail on Ice
Vote delays moving forward with design for at least a year
On Tuesday, June 15, the Travis County Commissioners Court voted to delay moving forward with the design of a new women's jail for at least a year. The decision came after more than three hours of testimony from more than 100 callers, including formerly incarcerated women and leaders from Austin Justice Coalition, the Lilith Fund, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Texas Fair Defense Project, Grassroots Leadership, and other activist organizations.
The meeting began on a cooperative note, with commissioners voting unanimously to expand services at the Sobering Center to accept criminal trespass offenders. But that unity quickly dissolved once discussion of the jail began. Item 29, brought forth by Commissioner Ann Howard and County Judge Andy Brown, would call on county staff to create a report by August 15 on how to develop a new strategic plan to replace the 2016 Master Plan to rebuild and expand the Travis County Correctional Complex in Del Valle; create a working group focused on diversion that would reduce the number of women in jail; and provide better physical and mental health care within the jail.
Brown then offered an amendment to delay the vote on the women's jail for 12 months as this work was done. While Commissioner Margaret Gómez quickly accepted the delay, Commissioner Brigid Shea vehemently opposed replacing the 2016 Master Plan altogether, saying she wouldn't want to "scrap" work that had been done; Brown then changed that language to "update." Commissioner Jeff Travillion reiterated his belief that many people have no access to mental health services outside the jail – his primary reason for wanting to build the proposed new "trauma informed facility" – and chastised his colleagues for infighting.
Shea urged immediate action, saying the court had already addressed justice advocates' concerns; she quoted from the report of a prior 2018 working group including advocates and formerly incarcerated women that "any delay in making these long-term decisions about plans for the women's facility will have a substantial and negative impact on women in custody in Travis County." Annette Price, co-director of Grassroots Leadership, told the Chronicle she felt her voice was not heard as a participant in that working group: "They already had a plan in motion of what they wanted to do and how they wanted to move it."
Brown emphasized that his and Howard's proposal did not foreclose moving ahead with the project in the future: "What this is saying is to take new data into account, current data, and delay decisions until we have all of that information in a new report." He also suggested that TCCC's Building 12, completed in 2012, could house a new women's facility: It's "considered to be in good condition ... The 160 or so women that are currently in the jail could actually all go into the newest, nicest facility we have."
The debate between Brown and Shea abated as the court took calls from the public; of the more than 100 people who testified, only two backed moving forward with the jail. Callers expressed disappointment with Travillion and Shea, highlighted the low population and short stays of most women in the jail, and argued that jail itself causes trauma and thus cannot be "trauma informed." Finally, Shea interrupted testimony to say she would support a "pause" on the women's jail discussion for 12 months, and the item passed unanimously.
On Monday, Grassroots Leadership's former head Bob Libal had announced he's considering running against Shea in 2022. Libal told the Chronicle, "I think we're at a moment where we need new leadership, and particularly on criminal justice issues. We have gone through a national reckoning on racism and the criminal justice system ... and listening to [the] commissioners court over the last few weeks, I don’t see that reflected. In Austin [it’s] really important to a lot of people, which is why you’ve seen such an outpouring around this issue.”