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Commissioners Court hits pause on new women’s unit at county jail

Wednesday, March 7, 2018 by Caleb Pritchard

The Travis County Commissioners Court has shelved for a full year what was supposed to be the first installment of a $97 million plan to build a new housing unit for female inmates at the county’s jail complex in Del Valle.

The 3-1 vote came on Tuesday afternoon following lengthy and occasionally tearful testimony from criminal justice reform activists who uniformly decried the proposal to replace the existing women’s unit with a larger facility.

“We have heard you all say you want the same things that we do, that you want to see fewer people locked up, that you want community voices at the table,” Holly Kirby, criminal justice programs director at Grassroots Leadership, told the court before its members voted. “We need to see that you mean what you say.”

Staff had recommended including $6.6 million in certificates of obligation to cover the unit’s pre-construction costs as part of a larger bond issuance that mostly included the first installment of roads, parks and safety bonds approved by both voters and the court last year.

The plan for the new women’s unit is part of a larger long-term overhaul of the Del Valle campus. It would replace existing facilities for women and consolidate services and programs under one roof. However, to the activists’ chagrin, it would expand the capacity from the current 336 beds up to 411 beds.

Sheriff Sally Hernandez implored the court to release the money, framing it as a matter of “quality, not quantity” that would improve the safety and comfort of corrections officers, jail staffers and inmates alike.

“You know, as sheriff, I have little impact on who is brought into the jail or who is released into the public,” Hernandez said. “What I do have control over is how those people are cared for. And that’s why I feel like that this facility needs to be done sooner and not later.”

Nonetheless, Commissioner Brigid Shea motioned to postpone the project for a period of time that she acknowledged might not sit comfortably with county staff.

“I know you all are going to hate this, but let’s give ourselves a year to pursue a really aggressive and effective diversion program. And then to also figure out, if we are able to be more successful with that, what do we really need,” in terms of facilities, she said.

Hernandez responded by pointing out that 30 separate agencies across the county are responsible for the total bookings within the jail system.

“Diversion is just not on the back of Travis County,” the sheriff said. “And it’s sure not on the back of the Travis County jail. I am all for diversion programs. And I support programs on the outside. But I think that you’re compromising what we can do within the jail by doing that.”

In the end, County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and Commissioner Jeff Travillion supported Shea’s motion. Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, after expressing sympathy for the activists’ arguments, voted against it. Commissioner Margaret Gómez did not attend Tuesday’s meeting.

After the remaining crowd members began to applaud the outcome, Eckhardt interrupted them with stern advice.

“This is a bump in the road. And we must have continuing engagement on the full continuum,” she said, before defending county planners and the Sheriff’s Office. “Do not villainize these people who are trying to do the right thing by making the criminal justice system the least onerous it can be for public safety and making it decreasingly a last resort. Make this a community effort for something positive.”

In a statement put out by Grassroots Leadership after the vote, Kirby said, “The vote today is a huge victory for us. The commissioners listened to the community and made the right choice. Ultimately, this is about what our community values: health, safety, and equity. The vote today opens the door for us to get to work on downsizing our jail and investing in community alternatives for a safer, healthier and more just Travis County.”

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