Travis County wants to spend $97M on new women's facility at jail

AUSTIN (KXAN) -- The Travis County Commissioners Court voted Tuesday to ultimately postpone consideration to spend $97 million to build a new women's facility at the Travis County Correctional Complex (TCCC) and is expected to revisit the proposal in a year.

Late Tuesday afternoon, a motion was made by Precinct Two Commissioner Brigid Shea to remove the certificate of obligation that would have been dedicated to the new facility's design plan and, as a result, pushed the project down the road by at least one year. Precinct One Commissioner Jeff Travillion seconded the motion. Because the budget deadline for commissioners was this week, the next available time to fund this project would be a year from now.

However, before the decision was made, commissioners heard arguments from both sides.

Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez stressed the importance of moving forward with the project.

"This investment is a commitment to providing adequate housing for our female population. This new facility is about having the right type of beds to address the changing, higher needs of the inmate population," said Hernandez. "We have made great strides in Travis County to provide the proper treatment for inmates in our custody; however, our current set up makes this difficult, and services are not efficiently provided."

However, community advocates who rallied outside the court chamber say the focus should be on increasing services that keep women out of jail, rather than building a new jail facility.

"It blows my mind that we would honestly consider nearly $100 million to do the most expensive, most harmful, least effective thing when Travis County could address the true, underlying drivers of intersections with the criminal justice system," explained Doug Smith, senior policy analyst, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition. "Travis County could be at the forefront, keeping people out of jail and addressing the real needs that are presented -- substance use disorder, [and] mental health."

"We do not need more prisons. We do not need to spend $97 million on a new prison. We need more treatment centers and accessible mental health services," added Brandi Shea French, who told KXAN she has spent time incarcerated.

According to the Travis County Sheriff's Office, there are currently 335 beds for female inmates.

Hernandez told commissioners the new 411-bed facility would allow the jail to offer better health services.

"The jail population has seen increasing numbers with medical and/or mental health conditions, and with greater acuity than in the past. The current housing facilities do not adequately address these classification and operational considerations, particularly for the female population," she added. "I don't want this just to be a housing facility. This has to be a modeled facility that provides the needs and helps women succeed."

According to county budget records, the FY 2018 budget authorized funding to procure design services for the proposed new women's jail facility at the complex. Building a new women's facility would have been the next step described in the 2016 Adult System Master Plan.

In the meantime during the facility's postponement, commissioners said they would look at increasing diversion programs.

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