A New Jail for Travis County?

September 7, 2018
Austin Chronicle

County moves forward with new women's building despite vote to delay and community outcry

Lauren Johnson knows what it's like to be booked into Travis County Jail and to feel the world spinning as her freedom, her community, and her privacy disappear. She knows what it's like for her pregnant body to ache on a thin jail mattress and to give birth with a guard at her hospital room door. And what it's like to hand over custody of her firstborn child just 48 hours later. She knows what it's like to relapse years later and to return to jail, leaving behind three kids, missing every birthday and every holiday, and losing her identity as the glue that held everyone together. And she knows what it's like to get out again, to get clean again, and to spend the rest of her life trying to fix the system.

"Incarceration doesn't create an environment for people to recover," Johnson says from her office at the American Civil Liberties Union. "None of the solutions to the criminal justice system live inside the criminal justice system. It's all about having access to treatment, mental health services, employment, housing. Crime is a symptom of the problem; it is not our problem."

Johnson focuses her ACLU work on statewide legislation but has recently been caught up in a contentious local issue: whether or not Travis County should build a new women's jail. The planned project is just the first part of a $620 million correctional campus overhaul. Johnson cycled in and out of the jail about four times over the course of a decade, and says the county's plans – and the community's pushback – have left her feeling "split in half." Women are left behind in every area of the criminal justice system, so she is attracted to the idea of giving them a "nice, new, shiny thing." But she also understands the advocates who want the county to delay the new building (which would have the capacity to incarcerate more women) until it reduces the female jail population.