AUSTIN, Texas — A majority of facilities at the Travis County Correction Complex need major infrastructure upgrades. Nineteen of 27 buildings fail functional, mechanical, and architectural ratings, according to the Planning and Budget Office. A two-year analysis resulted in the 2016 master plan with recommendations on renovation and expansion.
Phase one is the construction of a new women’s jail, a total $97 million project. Currently, female inmates are housed across five buildings. At Commissioner Court this week, Sheriff Sally Hernandez said the current set up is difficult and even dangerous for inmates.
“This is not about quantity, this is about quality, and it’s about helping women get the programs and the support and the medical needs that they need,” Hernandez said.
“Moving females into a male-dominant building jeopardizes their safety, you have to stop movement because the males are coming through,” said jail administrator Major Nelda Pena. “If they were in a safer environment, one place that they can go to clinics, they can go to programs more safely, that is the key.”
But a coalition of community groups believes programs would be better served outside of a jail.
“Our Travis County jail, no facility can address substance use disorder or mental health issues, and it’s simply not the right environment for it,” said Doug Smith, senior policy analyst for the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition.
They are urging the county to invest in diversion initiatives and mental health services.
“We are deeply concerned that they are able to squander $97 million when they have this amazing opportunity to actually address the underlying needs to divert people out of the criminal justice system, into community based services to address the mental health issues,” Smith said.
Judge Sarah Eckhardt said she thinks the commissioners do not have to choose one or the other. She believes the county can provide inmates the services they need, while maintaining public safety.
“If (inmates) are behaving in a way that’s a public safety threat, there will be a certain period of time where we may have to take them into custody, and we want to make sure that during that time, those facilities are appropriate them and don’t make their circumstances worse,” Eckhardt said.
The deadline for Travis County Commissioners to finance the project is next Tuesday. If the funding does not pass, the construction could be delayed at least a year.
“We will continue to house between 300 and 400 female inmates who have mental or behavior issues in some cases,” Eckhardt said. “They just won’t be very good facilities.”