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Photo by Travis County Sheriff's Office

Commissioners ponder putting millions into jail revamp

Monday, August 23, 2021 by Seth Smalley

If the Sheriff’s Office gets its budget request granted, inmates in Travis County correctional facilities may soon be sporting radio-frequency identification wristbands to track their whereabouts within the jail at all times. According to the Sheriff’s Office, it intends to use the technology to help contain coronavirus within the jail through contact-tracing and ensuring infected inmates remain isolated.

During Thursday’s county budget hearing, the Sheriff’s Office requested $4.2 million for the RFID technology, plus $6.2 million to reconfigure bed space and add cells and approximately $3 million to staff 27 new officers over the next three years. The Planning and Budget Office recommended commissioners fund the changes, though commissioners took no action during the hearing.

“It’s probably the largest department budget we have,” said budget analyst Alex Braden, mentioning that the Sheriff’s Office budget increased by $1.7 million (9 percent) from 2021 to 2022. Braden also noted that the Sheriff’s Office is reducing the number of correctional staff positions to 22 “to reflect the lower average daily population in the system.”

Though the number of those employed in the correctional systems and jails is decreasing, the total number of those employed in law enforcement is going up, as the Sheriff’s Office proposed adding 13 new law enforcement jobs in 2022 using internal salary savings. “There’d be a net increase of 16 law enforcement positions,” Braden said. Of the 16 positions, eight would be deputies, two would be detectives, one would be a sergeant, one would be a lieutenant and one would be a law enforcement specialist. The three remaining positions were not designated.

Over the next few budget cycles, the Sheriff’s Office expects to hire 27 additional positions, complying with a staffing study conducted earlier this year that recommended 56 new hires. (The Sheriff’s Office reduced that number to 47 and added four staff positions in 2021, leaving 27 remaining jobs, if the 16 positions end up being approved in the 2022 budget, as requested.)

The request for $4.2 million in Local Fiscal Recovery Funds, made possible by the American Rescue Plan Act, is to finance the RFID system to track inmates inside the jail. The stated purpose of the wristband surveillance system, in line with the qualification requirements for ARPA (originally intended to ameliorate the impact of the pandemic), was to “make sure inmates that have Covid-19 are isolated from the rest of the population.”

The RFID system would continue after the pandemic.

The other $6.2 million request was for a series of remodels at the Del Valle Correctional Complex. The biggest chunk of the project, costing $4.5 million, would reconfigure bed space at the Del Valle complex, building one, building three and the Health Service building in order to house specially classified inmates, who by law cannot currently be housed in those buildings.

“The thinking is that by reconfiguring some bed space we could create some smaller housing units to do some Covid isolation at Del Valle, as opposed to holding those inmates in Travis County Jail.”

However, there was some question about whether these remodels would be allowed, given a prohibitive resolution commissioners passed in June in response to advocacy against a proposed women’s jail expansion. The resolution delayed “for at least 12 months any decision on the design or construction of any new jail facility” relating to a $600 million master expansion plan.

However, commissioners Margaret Gómez, Brigid Shea and County Judge Andy Brown all said that the resolution’s intent was not to delay remodeling.

Editor’s Note: Andy Brown is on the board of the Capital of Texas Media Foundation, the parent nonprofit of the Austin Monitor.

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