Travis County Commissioners delay women's jail expansion in 3-1 vote

Over 20 county residents gave testimony March 6 opposing the construction of a new women's facility.

Over 20 county residents gave testimony March 6 opposing the construction of a new women's facility.

Commissioners removed $6.2 million from its 2018 debt issuance Tuesday that would have been dedicated to the design and pre-construction of a new women’s correctional facility in Del Valle.

“I am disappointed,” Sheriff Sally Hernandez said. “I think we owe the human population a quality facility but we will continue doing what we do and taking care of the inmates with what we have.”

Hernandez proposed the idea for a new 400-bed women’s facility during the county’s budget season in an effort to provide new and more appropriate housing and services for female inmates.

In a Feb. 27 meeting, Hernandez said that the current housing facilities do not adequately address the needs and services for the female population and that women are currently housed in five separate facilities—four in Del Valle and one in downtown Austin, which also contributes to the challenges of providing appropriate services to women.

“We have female inmates in five different locations,” Hernandez said. “Having them in different locations like this is not safe for the inmates or the officers. That risk can be avoided if we house them in one building.”

Hernandez said over 30 law enforcement agencies book people into the Travis County jail on a regular basis. She added that the jail population has seen increasing numbers with medical and mental health conditions, and with greater acuity than in the past. With a new facility, Hernandez and her staff are hoping to address those needs.

Members of the community, however, felt that $6.2 million should be used for mental health services and diversion programs. Over 20 Travis County residents and local criminal justice leaders gave testimony Tuesday afternoon on the topic.

Criminal Justice Program Director with Grassroots Leadership Holly Kirby urged commissioners to halt the construction on the women’s facility asking that more research be done in creating and improving diversion programs and reducing the jail population.

“You have the power right now to show all of us and the rest of Travis County that you are committed to doing something about the mass incarceration crisis in our community before any dollars are spent on a new expanded jail,” Kirby said. “Please vote no on a new women’s jail today and let us work with you for truly a healthier and safer Travis County.”

Commissioners deliberated the need for a facility but added that more could be done to improve the county’s jail diversion programs.

“We don’t need another facility; we need a better facility,” Judge Sarah Eckhardt said. “In the [next] year I believe we should continue to take a look at the effectiveness, efficiency and fairness of our jail diversion programs and no matter how well intentioned, if they are not working we need to have the bravery to pull them down and move the money to another program.”

Eckhardt added that with the year-long delay there will be additional costs in overtime and there will be a request for additional corrections officers because of the inefficiency of the campus.

“Those are ongoing dollars that I would rather spend on effective jail diversion,” Eckhardt said. “But, by making the decision today we will not be spending it on jail diversion. We will be spending it on corrections officers because of the inefficiency of the current plant.”

The vote was approved 3-1 to remove the $6.2 million for the women’s facility with Commissioner Gerald Daugherty voting against and Commissioner Margaret Gomez absent.

“We need a jail improvement for the ladies and we are going to continue to lock people up,” Daugherty said. “I don’t know where we are going to find the dollars for the things you want and I don’t think we can get there in a year.”
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