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Activists Call On Travis County To Say No To New Women's Jail

The Travis County Correctional Complex in Del Valle.
Michael Minasi
Activist groups are calling on Travis County commissioners to scratch plans for a new women's jail and instead invest in alternatives to mass incarceration.

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A group of criminal justice advocates, activists and formerly incarcerated people is calling on Travis County to abandon its plans to build a new, 350-bed women’s jail and suspend construction projects on any other jail facilities.

Travis County commissioners on Tuesday could approve a nearly $4.3-million contract with HDR Architecture to build the facility, which was one of the pillars of a 2016 plan to revamp the county’s correctional complex.

More than a dozen advocates Monday called on commissioners to scrap the multi-million roadmap, arguing that the jail population estimates in the 2016 plan have not borne out.

The county has capacity to house nearly 3,000 inmates, but the inmate population currently is just over 1,400 people as of Monday. Advocates say that’s the result of the county’s efforts to more quickly release people accused of nonviolent felonies and misdemeanors, and to reduce jail stays during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Annette Price, head of the criminal justice nonprofit Grassroots Leadership, participated in the county’s working group on the design for the jail. Price, who previously served time in prison, said the process felt like a foregone conclusion and that she didn’t feel her voice as a formerly incarcerated person was truly heard.

She thought the money for the facility could be better spent, she added.

“This money could be invested in re-entry programs, mental health and behavioral health, as well as substance abuse, housing, job training, shelters for domestic violence and programs that could help support a safe community,” she said.

Price was joined Monday by members of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, Texas Harm Reduction Alliance and the Texas Fair Defense Project.

Precinct 1 Commissioner Jeff Travillion said he agrees in principle with the need to reduce incarceration in Travis County, but added that commissioners — and the Travis County sheriff's office — have to meet the immediate needs of people in the custody of the county.

Currently, Travillion argued, women don't have effective access to health care, mental health care and other programs at Travis County Correctional Complex.

"I support parallel efforts to increase these services and provide more opportunities for diversion," Travillion said. "However, I cannot support pursuing that work at the expense of providing trauma-informed services for incarcerated women who, for various reasons, remain in our jail and under our care."

The women’s jail is part of a three-tiered plan to update Travis County’s jail facilities over the next two decades. Advocates asked county leaders to drop the project and opt instead for a community-led proposal they’re calling the Justice Reinvestment Plan.

Maggie Luna of the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition asked county leaders to listen to people who’ve been previously incarcerated. She said county officials' suggestion that the facility will be “trauma-informed” runs counter to her experience while she was incarcerated.

“Ask us, and we’ll tell you: Nothing in there would’ve helped us become better people when we got out,” she said. “We need communities, not jails. Invest in the community and not in these cages.”

Shortly after the news conference, Travis County Judge Andy Brown reiterated his call for more diversion opportunities — a platform he’s focused on since his election campaign.

Brown co-authored an op-ed in the Austin Chronicle with Price last week that called the jail expansion plan outdated and antiquated.

“It’s clear to me that our community’s priorities are investing in mental health, behavioral health,” Brown told KUT, “and that’s what I’m focused on.”

Andrew Weber is a general assignment reporter for KUT, focusing on criminal justice, policing, courts and homelessness in Austin and Travis County. Got a tip? You can email him at Follow him on Twitter @England_Weber.
Jerry Quijano is the local All Things Considered anchor for KUT. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on Twitter @jerryquijano.
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