Thursday, November 05, 2009

Travis County jail expansion results in few new beds

Travis County opened a massive new jail wing last week with 1,336 beds, though those will mostly replace so-called "variance" beds that the state Commission on Jail Standards previously authorized with temporary waivers to accommodate of jail overcrowding. (The daily newspaper didn't cover the story, though it got some play on local TV news.) Oct. 28 was the grand opening for Building 12 at the jail, which is reportedly the largest such unit in Central Texas.

I spoke yesterday with Maj. Darren Long who's in charge of the jail for more details about where Travis stands.

He told me a total of 817 "variance beds" at the jail will be eliminated over the next five months as they open up different pods in Building 12. An additional 336 beds will be eliminated by closing a number of smaller units on the campus, according to the TCSO. That's a total of 1,153 out of the 1,336 "new" beds that are simply replacing old ones that will be taken out of service, so at the end of the day the total capacity expansion will be rather minimal: Just over 180 new beds, according to these data.

Long said another 384 beds will be temporarily mothballed and left unstaffed, but will remain available for use in peak summer months. The total cost of all the improvements came to $72 million, he said.

To tie a bow on this story, I should mention that, in the run-up to the bond election where Travis County voters approved this expansion, County Judge Sam Biscoe wrote to Grits that:
Unfortunately, the new beds under discussion contain very few additional beds. Almost all of them are replacement beds. Here's the explanation: in addition to the 575 variance beds, another 888 new beds are to replace beds that are in "poor" condition. Thus, construction of a total of 1463 beds without a net gain of a single bed. The 888 old beds do not have to be replaced, but something must be done to address life and safety issues, which will cost a substantial amount periodically and requires the continued use of an old and inefficient system.
(Maj. Long disputed the "poor quality" characterization, FWIW, saying all beds met TCJS standards.)

When Travis County issued these bonds, I opposed them at the ballot box in part because I didn't trust that the county would actually replace old beds, instead fearing they would simply take the opportunity to expand overall capacity. That concern now appears to have been unfounded. It's true the number of what Biscoe called "poor quality" beds being decommissioned was reduced, but the number of "variance beds" eliminated somehow increased, so the overall outcome is at least within the ballpark of what Biscoe suggested.

Maj. Long also mentioned that one of the decommissioned buildings formerly housed the county's work-release program, which was eliminated earlier this year in an effort to reduce jail overcrowding. Under the old work release program, inmates would come into the jail, stay at night, then leave to go to their job, also spending weekends in the jail.

In its stead they've created the Sheriff's Weekend Alternative Program (SWAP), in which folks check in on Saturday and Sunday, work 8-5 on county supervised projects like picking up trash, etc., but they don't stay there - they get to go home at night. Long said the change was made because the work-release program dealt with very low-level misdemeanors where safety was of little concern - after all, the inmates were being released every weekday, anyway.

TCSO public information officer Roger Wade told me the Sheriff believes the county needs more jail beds in the near term, but I continue to believe Travis County doesn't need to expand jail capacity, particularly in light of Long's assertion that 88% of Travis inmates are sitting in jail awaiting trial. If that's true, there's plenty of room for pursuing other alternatives before launching into more jail building. Indeed, that was sort of my point when Grits opposed the jail bonds four years ago: I thought, and continue to think, that the county should focus on diverting petty offenders from the jail and reducing unnecessary pretrial detention instead of immediately turning to construction as the cure for all ills.

3 comments:

The UnLuck said...

Grits,

Does this mean I don't have to look at feces smeared on the wall at the new Travis County Bed & Breakfast? Did they sell my jet ski they took after my second BWI to fund, in part, this expansion. I've been reduced to a paddle boat. But my beer is cold....

Tally said...

"remain available for use in peak summer months"

Travis County Spa & Resort?

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