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County moves forward with jail redevelopment plan

Monday, November 16, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard

TravCo_jail

In the wake of voters’ recent rejection of a large bond issue to build a new civil courthouse, Travis County is pressing onward with other plans to update its aging infrastructure.

During a special work session last Thursday, planners unveiled to the Commissioners Court their recommendations for how to redevelop the County Correctional Complex in Del Valle.

The vision targets aging facilities and inefficient systems, and calls for the construction of a brand-new building to house female inmates, an expanded visitation area and a new health services center.

Staff and the county’s consultants, CGLRicciGreene and Broaddus Planning, had been studying development scenarios since April. The month before that, they had delivered to the commissioners their findings from a year-long needs analysis of the correctional system.

One of the key conclusions they drew from that first phase of the process is that, despite an increasing population countywide, the number of beds needed at the jail will remain largely flat over the next 20 years. However, the second and most recent phase revealed that most of the facilities at the sprawling Del Valle campus are in poor shape and will only get worse.

Stephen Coulston of Broaddus Planning told the commissioners that the planning team had considered three scenarios for updating the jail, ranging from minimal renovation to a much more intensive demolition and construction program.

Ultimately the team opted for a middle road that will entirely replace certain buildings while expanding or rehabilitating others. The 20-year plan would be broken up into three distinct phases that would deliver projects based on their determined priority. First up is a new central booking facility in downtown Austin as well as a new unit for female inmates at Del Valle.

The booking facility would replace a parking garage adjacent to the Blackwell-Thurman Criminal Justice Center at West 10th and San Antonio streets, and it would contain 196 beds for temporary, 72-hour inmate housing. With an envisioned 2,638 beds – an insignificant increase over the status quo – the Del Valle campus would absorb any inmates needed to be held longer than three days.

Of those beds, 336 would be contained in the new female facility designed to accommodate a specialty clinic that could likely provide OB/GYN services. The building would also be engineered to shoulder future expansion if necessary.

The two subsequent phases of the master plan would see a new facility for male inmates, the addition of an onsite courtroom and – with the renewal of in-person visitations – an expanded visitation center. A new clinic would also be built to provide more services than currently offered, a benefit that would decrease costly transfers to medical providers outside of the jail.

When asked by the commissioners about the project cost of the recommendation, Coulston said it is too early to speculate on a large plan that will be executed over the course of multiple decades. However, he did estimate that the cost of the new central booking facility would be close to $70 million.

Fresh off the narrow defeat of the county’s $287 million civil courthouse bond proposal, the commissioners were quick to acknowledge the political problems of pressing forward with yet other expensive infrastructure project. Admitting that the county faces a “tall hill to climb,” County Judge Sarah Eckhardt laid out her strategy for convincing taxpayers.

“It is costing more per inmate to house them now than it will after these one-time costs that will improve the physical plan,” she said. “And that’s what we have to prove up to our population. That’s the info we need to get out to them: That the no-build scenario will cost us more over time, (not to mention) the improvements to quality of those who work in corrections and the quality of life of the inmates while they’re out there.”

Commissioner Brigid Shea also noted that the county should tout its innovative programs designed to deter crime and reduce recidivism, which she said are likely responsible for the flat projections of needed beds at Del Valle.

Originally built in 1986, the complex was designed to hold 267 inmates. The last major addition came in the mid-2000s with the opening of Building 12, a massive housing unit whose planning and conception began a decade before when overcrowding was a major issue across the state. Currently, the vast majority of inmates at Del Valle are being held there awaiting trial.

Before adjourning the work session, Eckhardt said she would soon add one item to a future agenda to approve the recommended plan and another to greenlight its first phase. Neither item appears on Tuesday’s regular voting session agenda.

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