Travis Co. Sheriff wants to reduce jail capacity, meanwhile plans for new women’s jail move forward

Travis County

AUSTIN (KXAN) — The Travis County Sheriff wants to decommission 192 jail beds at the Travis County Correctional Complex.

At a Commissioners Court meeting on Tuesday, Sheriff Sally Hernandez asked the court for permission to petition the Texas Commission on Jail Standards for the change at the complex in Del Valle.

The move would reduce the capacity of the jail system from 3,169 to 2,977. Currently, the average daily population of the jail system is 2,150.

“In the last four years, the criminal justice system has worked hard to divert as many as possible from incarceration,” Sheriff Hernandez said in a letter to the court. “That work is paying off with a lower jail population and a much lower number of minimum security classified inmates.”

192 jail beds

Hernandez said the 192 beds sit in four different minimum-security buildings, built in 1993 and “intended to be a temporary solution to overcrowding.” They were intended for inmates convicted of misdemeanor charges.

The Sheriff said diversion efforts, like the Sobering Center or drug court, have lessened the need for these types of low-security buildings. In fact, they were last used in October and November of 2018 for about 40 days, with an average of 18 inmates per day.

Major Wes Priddy with the Sheriff’s Office explained that as long as the buildings remain in their design capacity, they are required to ensure they meet the minimum jail standards. He said they are costly to maintain.

“In utilities alone, we spend over 1,200 dollars a month on those buildings,” Priddy said. “And then of course there is constantly having to change roofs, repair hot water heaters.”

In fact, a 2016 study recommended they be demolished.

When asked why the buildings couldn’t be re-purposed for another type of inmate population, he explained that the location is inefficient for higher-security inmates, inmates with mental health problems, and even women.

Hernandez added, “These buildings are not attached to our inmate mall which makes it more staff intensive to get inmates to clinic visits, programs, and visitation.”

Priddy said they will assess whether the facilities could be re-purposed for a different use, like storage, or should be demolished.

“We are counting on the diversion efforts to continue. We already have enough of a track record with those efforts to know we are probably never going to have to go back to those buildings.”

Major Wes Priddy, Travis County Sheriff’s Office

Women’s Facility

Meanwhile, the Sheriff’s Office told KXAN that the county is moving forward with plans to build a $79 million women’s correctional facility.

In early December 2019, numbers were presented to the Commissioners Court showing “a significant drop in both its average daily population and the number of bookings” at the Travis County jail over the last few years.

At that same meeting, details were presented for the building of a 350-bed facility, designed with women in mind.

The Sheriff explained that female inmates are housed across three different buildings “designed for men.” She said it could be uncomfortable for female inmates to get to medical appointments and programs in the current layout.

They hope the new facility will be able to provide centralized healthcare and programs for women, along with more “trauma-informed” care.

The facility has received harsh criticism from some criminal justice reform advocates.

Erin Martinson, running for Travis County District Attorney, said she is “100 percent against” the women’s facility.

“Don’t you know if they build it, they will fill it?” Martinson said.

Annette Price, Co-Executive Director of Grassroots Leadership, agreed.

“It’s not a state of the art jail that we need, it’s more money for programs for women.”

Annette Price, Co-Executive Director of Grassroots Leadership

She spent 20 years of her life incarcerated and argued that millions of dollars should instead be spent on community efforts to keep women out of jail in the first place.

“Pre-arrest diversion programs are working,” Price said, “so what they can do with the money is provide better services for women so they don’t have to go to jail at all. The best things we can do is get women back into society and get them the kind of treatment they need.”

But Sheriff Hernandez said it’s not a matter of “either/or,” but “and.”

“We need more diversion programs and we need a women’s facility,” Hernandez said. “Because we are always going to have people in our facility, and it’s important we take good care of them.”

Diversion programs

A diversion program is a form of sentence where the criminal offender avoids jail time and instead joins a rehabilitation program, which will help remedy the behavior leading to the original arrest.

“We are seeing a downward trend,” District Attorney Margaret Moore said, “because we are taking more advantage of the ability to divert and put people on community supervision that requires them to meet conditions, but allows them to stay in the community.”

She said in the years since she took office, more than 2,000 people have been put on some kind of diversionary program.

As for her take on the Women’s facility, she said she fully supports improving conditions for current female inmates.

“One of the things people don’t understand is the money that is committed to build a facility is a capital expenditure and that’s not money that could be used for programs,” Moore said. “They aren’t interchangeable.”

Margaret Moore, Travis County District Attorney

She said more money and resources could be devoted to the types of treatments that these diversion programs call for.

“We don’t always have enough resources for those folks who can be handled differently int he criminal justice system.”

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