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Travis County jail looks toward a more sustainable future

Monday, December 21, 2020 by Seth Smalley

The Travis County Correctional Complex intends to implement a number of sustainability initiatives to reduce waste, save money and shrink the facility’s net energy use to zero by 2040, according to a presentation to the Travis County Commissioners Court last Tuesday.

Shaun Auckland, a sustainability coordinator with Transportation and Natural Resources, told the commissioners about the new sustainability initiatives at the Travis County Correctional Complex.

In partnership with the Travis County Sheriff’s Office, TNR composed a set of “draft goals” relating to the initiatives, which are set to be finalized pending the decisions of a number of to-be-created advisory committees.

“The Sheriff’s Office had reached out to us with an interest in getting their garden started up again. It had been in furlough. And since I had performed work previously with the Sheriff’s Office getting recycling infrastructure put into place, the partnership seemed natural,” Auckland told the Monitor, adding that the focus of her master’s degree was sustainability in jail systems.

The initiatives included reducing energy consumption, water use and waste generation in conjunction with supporting a local sustainable food system, and increasing recycling efforts. Though the presentation initially included a bullet on reducing recidivism through sustainability, Auckland said they will redact that language going forward.

“As far as sustainability projects, we were looking at it from an inmate’s perspective for some things that we could do to change the inmates’ direction as far as coming back to jail, change their lifestyle. Sustainability was one of the things we started to look at,” said Steven Wentrcek, who runs the marketable skills program at the Sheriff’s Office.

The sustainability team at Transportation and Natural Resources, which assists both county departments and elected officials, worked in collaboration with the Travis County Sheriff’s Office to implement the initiatives. The partnership, consisting of guidance and resource allocation to the department, began several years ago in supporting one of the marketable-skills programs.

“At Transportation and Natural Resources we had a division whose function was to encourage recycling across the county, and then we evolved into a sustainability program. So now we’re in the unique position to assist all 47 departments in putting forth and supporting sustainability initiatives,” Auckland said.

The move is part of a nationwide effort by correctional facilities to reexamine their sustainability practices. Auckland’s presentation to the commissioners highlighted the success of Columbus, Ohio in transitioning to a smarter and more sustainable justice system via the creation of a “multidisciplinary team of experts in jail operations.” According to the presentation, Travis County should likewise strive to become a model of sustainability for the rest of the state.

As part of that aim, TNR’s draft goals included establishing sustainability goals, and measuring their continued progress based on “system benchmarks,” in addition to regularly reporting innovations and cost-savings related to sustainability measures by county leadership. However, according to Auckland, the specific benchmarks are not yet determined; they are slated to be decided following the formation of and deliberation by advisory committees formed for this express purpose.

Other draft-goals consisted of increasing the Sheriff’s Office outreach efforts to create a culture change regarding sustainability within the sheriff’s office, teaching inmates new skills related to sustainability. They also intend to plant a garden and use the produce in the kitchen, in addition to working with contractors to locally source food. Already, 70 percent of the food produced by the garden is being used by the kitchen, while the remaining food is donated to the Central Texas Food Bank, Auckland told the Monitor.

The sustainable food initiative would come in addition to the jail’s existing garden and aquaponic system.

“Everything we’re looking at in terms of jail sustainability, it has a return on investment. It might initially have a large price tag, but over the years it saves the taxpayer money. With the garden, for instance, the inmates are taking away life skills that could make them a better father, a better employee, a better husband – and in the end, could make them less likely to return,” Wentrcek told the Monitor.

The operating budget of the 713,000-square-foot facility is $176.8 million. In 2019, the Travis County Correctional Complex booked 38,000 individuals.

Photo courtesy of the Travis County Sheriff’s Office.

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