Activists gather to address additional funds for Travis County Jail

Katie Keenan

Criminal justice advocates gathered Friday at the Travis County Commissioner’s Court to call on officials to scale back the $2.4 million in funding allotted to hiring 36 additional correctional officers for the county jail.

Grassroots Leadership, a non-profit organization dedicated to fighting mass incarceration, led a press conference at the commissioner’s court where advocates emphasized the need to fund programs that could potentially keep people out of jail.

“Our goal here today is to demand that before voting to allocate more resources to jail staff, that the county commissioners and other local policy-makers prioritize funding community-based services that address the root causes of mass incarceration in our community,” Grassroots Leadership member Jorge Renaud said.

Renaud added that poverty, homelessness, mental health and substance abuse contribute to these root causes but are not being sufficiently addressed by local government.

“To reinvest in more corrections officers when we are not providing adequate services for the people who are incarcerated currently or support for them when they get out is a mistake,” said Kandace Vallejo, director of Youth Rise Texas, an organization that works with young people whose parents have been incarcerated or deported. “We are setting ourselves up to see the situation repeat itself over and over.”

Potential solutions for disadvantaged communities were proposed by Amp 360 founder and CEO Claire Morel, who through her organization, works with incarcerated individuals. She said inmates or those who were once in jail should be at the center of decision-making conversations in relation to funding and reforming the criminal justice system.

“When we engage people who have been through it, they are really the ones who can tell us how to do it,” Morel said.

Through Amp 360, Morel coordinated an internship program located at the county jail that involved students engaging with inmates to develop programs for re-entry into society after being released from jail. The program was canceled Wednesday. 

“The reason that we were given is that we are a security threat to the inmates,” Morel said. “To this day, I am not convinced that that is a legitimate reason. I think that it’s a little tricky when you’re in a correctional facility basically riling people up about their rights.”

Several activists participated in the hearing after the press conference, including Texas Advocates for Justice member Brandi Townsend, who was incarcerated on two separate occasions for drug charges, something she openly shared with the court. Townsend said if she had access to better rehabilitation resources and mental health care, she would not have ended up in jail.

“I have been directly affected by incarceration,” Townsend said. “I struggled with addiction from a very young age … I kept trying to find my way out of it, I just didn’t know what those resources were. Going into prison, I needed the treatment, I needed someone to help me with that area of my life.”