Grumet: Why Travis County wants to build a kinder, gentler jail


Should a jail stay come with cushioned seats?

Lost in the recent debate over a proposed $97 million women’s jail facility — which Travis County commissioners shelved for at least a year while they take stock of various jail diversion programs — was a surprising vision for what life in lockup could look like.

Picture windows. Calming colors. Real furniture instead of metal bunkbeds and bolted-down tables and stools.

No plans have been drawn up yet for the proposed 411-bed facility, which would consolidate all the female inmates currently scattered across four older buildings in the Travis County Corrections Complex in Del Valle. But officials have a softer aesthetic than the current jail in mind, based on the photos of other jail spaces that Mark Gilbert, the county’s strategic planning manager, recently showed commissioners.

VIEWPOINTS: Public deserves chance to improve jail diversion programs

The images from a San Diego jail featured common areas with wooden tables upholstered seating like you might find in any office building, as well as and sizable windows bringing in natural light. The sleeping quarters at a Minnesota prison, with simple twin beds on wooden frames next to wooden desks, looked a lot like my freshman dorm room. Except even my college dorm was painted an institutional off-white, while these quarters were adorned in soothing blues and greens, hues purposely borrowed from nature.

The county, Gilbert said, is trying to create “a more therapeutic environment, a more normalized environment.” A place that’s more about rehabilitation than punishment.

That’s a major step forward — certainly from the purposefully degrading conditions at a few jails around the country, like the now-closed tent city at the Maricopa County jail in Arizona, where former Sheriff Joe Arpaio famously made male inmates wear pink underwear and use pink towels.

But even in progressive Travis County, this “normalized environment” would be a notable departure from the old school conditions at the Del Valle jail. Maj. Nelda “Sally” Peña and several other corrections officers recently took me on a tour, helping me understand what’s driving the push for a new facility. I was most struck by their desire to make the jail a more humanizing place.

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Building 3, which opened in the late 1980s, exemplifies what’s wrong. A guard post is planted in the center of four inmate pods, each one holding up to a dozen inmates. To prevent the inmates from seeing which way the guard is looking at any given time, that circular post is surrounded by one-way mirrors. There’s little face-to-face contact with any officers. Inmates can go outside only at appointed times.

Contrast that with the setup in the relatively newer Building 12, where the guard post sits out in the open, in a large common area of the pod where inmates can sit at tables or use the payphones. An officer can hear how inmates are doing and build a rapport with them. The pods still have bolted-down metal furniture and white walls. But during the day, when the inmates are allowed out of their cells, those in Building 12 have free access to an outdoor basketball court off the pod, separated by large windows that bring in natural light.

When a few inmates were recently shuffled from Building 12 to Building 3, one guard told me, the change in conditions was so dramatic, the inmates kept asking what they had done wrong. “They felt like they were being punished,” she said.

At this point, you may be thinking: Darned straight. That’s what they’re in jail for, right?

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But here’s the thing: Roughly three-quarters of the inmates at the Del Valle jail are people who have been arrested — but not yet convicted — of a crime. So, their stay at the jail, which averages 53 days for those who don’t post bond within the first 72 hours of their arrest, is supposed to be about ensuring they show up for trial, not exacting a pound of flesh.

Moreover, our country is finding that punishment is overrated. More than half the people released from U.S. prisons were rearrested within a year, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, and three-quarters were back behind bars within five years. What we’re doing isn’t working.

Environment is just one piece of the puzzle, but various studies have found that natural light, cushioned seats, soothing colors, and use of natural elements such as wood and stone lead to happier office environmentsbetter outcomes for hospital patients and less agitation in psychiatric wards. Simply put, these features make people feel cared for.

For some criminal justice reform advocates, however, jail design isn’t the main problem.

“A jail is not a hospital. It is not a college campus. It is not a therapeutic retreat center,” Holly Kirby, representing Grassroots Leadership, the Decarcerate ATX Coalition and other advocacy groups, told Travis commissioners. “A jail is a jail. People go there to get locked up. They’re taken away from their family, from their community. And when they leave, they have criminal records (that) follow them, the stigma, the barriers.”

RELATED: Travis County commissioners to hold off on women’s jail expansion

She and other advocates want more people to receive mental health or substance abuse treatment instead of a jail cell — and for good reason. Nationally, two-thirds of women in jails and 41 percent of male inmates report a history of mental health problems, according to the Bureau of Justice StatisticsAnother survey found nearly a third of jail inmates were using drugs at the time of their arrest.

Travis County has various diversion programs, and no doubt officials could do more. But we still need a jail to house people accused of violent crimes or repeat offenses — people who aren’t candidates for diversion programs.

And we need to think more about what kind of people we want them to be when they come out.



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