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Travis County agrees to take Hays County prisoners

Wednesday, August 28, 2019 by Jack Craver

Hays County has a prisoner problem, and it’s looking to its neighbor to the north, Travis County, for help.

Hays is in the process of expanding its jail to house more inmates. In the meantime, it’s asked to send some of those it can’t accommodate to Travis County, which has some extra space due to a decline in its incarcerated population in recent years.

Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez has eagerly embraced the request, and asked the Commissioners Court to approve a deal that will allow the Sheriff’s Department to reopen a recently closed unit at the Travis County Jail and put 50 Hays County prisoners there.

Nobody on the Travis County Commissioners Court has a problem lending their neighbor a hand. The only question is how much to charge for it.

In order to cover the full cost of housing the inmates, Hays must pay $5,500 per day, or $110 per inmate, according to an estimate by the Travis County Planning and Budget Office. But the Sheriff’s Department provided a much lower estimate: $2,000 per day, or $40 per inmate.

Major Wes Priddy of the Sheriff’s Department said his department was eager to help Hays, noting that his department had turned to Hays last October when floods jeopardized access to clean drinking water at the Travis County Jail. The Hays Sheriff’s Department allowed its Travis County counterparts to fill up water trailers at its facility.

Priddy said PBO’s estimate vastly overstated the cost of adding 50 inmates. Its estimate clearly takes into account fixed costs that the new inmates will not alter.

“We are running a jail, whether we help our neighbors out to the south or not. There are certain overhead costs that we are going to incur no matter what,” he said.

Plus, he added later, the inmates Hays has proposed sending do not have any serious medical or mental health issues that would require costly treatments.

“We get the pick of the litter, so to speak,” he said.

County Judge Sarah Eckhardt also emphasized the “good neighbor” angle, saying that while the county should get paid for its service, it should also embrace the fact that it is doing a favor and a good deed. Travis County should get a fair price, she argued, but it’s not the end of the world if the price doesn’t cover the full cost of keeping 50 people behind bars.

“Good neighbors don’t measure every cup of sugar,” she said.

However, Eckhardt believed $40/day was probably too low, citing what Hays County pays to the 10 counties it already sends inmates to. The range spans from $38 in Falls County to $66 in Bell County, for an average of $48.50.

It would make sense for Travis County to charge more than those counties, where the lower cost of living makes it much cheaper to staff a jail, said Eckhardt. She proposed a rate of $3,500 a day, or $70 per inmate.

Commissioner Brigid Shea expressed concern about the fact that the unit for Hays inmates would be staffed entirely with deputies working overtime, “possibly mandatory overtime.” Priddy responded that he believed the staffing could probably be achieved with “voluntary overtime.”

Shea asked that staff track any Hays inmates and determine how many, if any, would have likely been diverted from the jail system to mental health treatment had they been arrested in Travis County.

The court ultimately voted unanimously to approve an annual agreement at $3,500 per day that will automatically renew for five subsequent years. Either party can terminate the agreement at any time with a 30-day notice. The commissioners asked for staff to review the agreement in six months.

Hays County hopes to complete the expansion of its jail by next March.

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