In a letter sent to top county officials Friday, nine community groups called for a halt to plans for a new women’s jail in Travis County, saying their recommendations to reduce incarceration should come before new jail construction.
The letter recommends three policy changes to reduce the jail population. Advocates argue that the jail population could be significantly reduced by decriminalizing all offenses that are eligible for Cite-and-Release; reevaluating the prosecution of state jail felonies; and investing in community alternatives to arrest for mental health and substance use disorders.
“More important than upgrading aging buildings or increasing operational efficiency is prioritizing alternatives to incarceration that keep people in their communities and out of jail,” the letter reads in part. The signatories to the letter are Counter Balance ATX, Excellence and Advancement Foundation, Grassroots Leadership, Lonestar Justice Alliance, Measure Austin, Texas Advocates for Justice, Texas Appleseed, Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, and Texas Fair Defense.
County officials have previously cited the need to upgrade aging facilities and improve conditions for women in the Travis County Jail system as the primary reason for building a new women’s jail. Advocates say that thinking is backward.
“We care deeply about the conditions that our community members endure while they are incarcerated and we look forward to having that conversation,” said Holly Kirby, criminal justice programs director at Grassroots Leadership. “But what this coalition is saying is that we can’t talk about improved conditions for incarcerated women until we have a real plan for reducing the number of women in jail in the first place.”
Advocates say halting the construction of a new women’s jail and reinvesting in the community will have a positive impact on everyone who lives, works, or pays taxes in Travis County.
“We know that jailing women for misdemeanor offenses can lead to the loss of jobs and housing and often leaves children in unstable environments,” said Susanne Pringle, interim executive director of Texas Fair Defense Project. “Our recommendations, if implemented, will increase public safety and place a lower burden on taxpayers.”
Finally, advocates insist that any changes for Travis County’s jails must include concrete plans to reduce the glaring racial disparities in the system. A report released last year by Grassroots Leadership revealed significant and persistent discrepancies in the number of days spent in the Travis County jail by people of color, particularly Blacks, as compared to Whites. These discrepancies existed regardless of a variety of factors, including but not limited to, the number of charges on the booking, the severity level of the charges and whether bond was approved, including Personal Recognizance Bonds. The analysis is based on data provided to Grassroots Leadership by the Travis County Sheriff ’s Office in response to an Open Records Request.
“We can’t continue to ignore institutionally racist systems that perpetuate a disparate prison industrial complex in Travis County,” said Meme Styles, president and founder of MEASURE. “Pouring more money into the maintenance of a broken system is counterproductive and disregards the data.”
Jorge Renaud, an organizer with Texas Advocates for Justice, a community organization whose members have all been directly affected by incarceration, pointed out that any construction to the local jail would inevitably be used to house individuals whose needs had likely been ignored in the community.
“It’s that cycle — poor people of color can’t get services for their needs, get arrested in disproportionate numbers, and then county officials act as if they are suddenly concerned about those needs now that the jail beds are filled,” Renaud said.