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Discussion continues on RFID tracking systems in county jails

Wednesday, September 1, 2021 by Seth Smalley

During Tuesday’s meeting of the Travis County Commissioners Court, commissioners deliberated on a potential $4.3 million investment in a radio-frequency identification wristband tracking system for the county jails. While County Judge Andy Brown raised questions about whether the hefty price tag was market-rate, other commissioners asserted a vote of approval would simply free up money, giving the county room to further negotiate with RFID system vendors.

“This is something the Sheriff’s Office has talked about with the Planning and Budget Office for three, possibly four years. It’s envisioned to be an active system where TCSO correctional employees would have a wristband, along with inmates, and it would track everyone’s movement throughout the campus,” said Travis Gatlin with the Planning and Budget Office.

Gatlin said the system would have the added bonus of identifying Covid cases and aiding in contract tracing.

“So in the event that there’s somebody that has tested positive, the system would allow us to backtrack and see all the interactions those people had,” he told commissioners.

“As I understand it, these systems are recommended by the sheriff’s department primarily for tracking cases of Covid because it helps them be more precise in determining who they may need to quarantine,” Commissioner Brigid Shea said. “This seems like a reasonable health and safety measure.”

The Sheriff’s Office says the RFID system would track inmates’ outdoor activities and break times of correctional officers.

The $4.3 million would come from $247,450,630 in federal dollars that were awarded to Travis County as part of an omnibus bill for local fiscal recovery funds.

Commissioners Shea, Ann Howard and Jeff Travillion asked whether the $4.3 million would be a one-time expense or if there would be ongoing costs associated with the staffing and administration of the system.

“I think it’s likely that we would probably need to continue at least one position in the Sheriff’s Office and there could be a need for additional positions in IT,” Gatlin said. “Plus some ongoing maintenance for the system – that is very typical for a system like this.”

Brown aired concerns over the system’s cost, citing significantly lower prices for similar systems put forward by other municipalities.

“I absolutely support making people who are incarcerated more safe, but the budget number I’ve got some trouble with. I’ve talked with a couple other jurisdictions, and maybe they don’t have the same system but I’ve heard numbers way, way less. One jurisdiction spent about $100,000. Others think it might be around $500,000,” Brown said. “It doesn’t seem like we’ve done the analysis that we need to before assigning a dollar amount to it.”

Gatlin said the $4.3 million number came from the Sheriff’s Office. He assured commissioners no funds would be spent on the system until the Planning and Budget Office knows the exact costs.

“The number probably does need some fine-tuning,” he said.

Commissioners ended up unanimously approving the designated allocations for most of the local fiscal recovery fund proposals, with the exception of the RFID tracking system, for which they reserved funds pending a further cost analysis.

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

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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