Arnold Garcia Jr. AUSTIN AMERICANSTATESMAN
DATE: April 25, 1990
PUBLICATION: Austin AmericanStatesman
For the first time since 1932, the jail atop the Travis County Courthouse is empty. The emptying of the old jail could signal the end of a federal suit that has dogged three different Commissioners Courts and three different sheriffs since Bobby Taylor then a young legal aid lawyer filed it in December 1972.
Sheriff Doyne Bailey said the development was made possible by the state taking 40 prisoners a week out of Travis County jails 12 more than the county’s weekly quota of 28. No prisoners have been housed in the lockup since April 6, Bailey said. But county officials have kept the history making news to themselves because circumstances could force the old jail to be occupied again, the sheriff added. The jail opened for business when the courthouse did almost 60 years ago.
The old jail was to have been closed by court order on Dec. 31, so if crowding doesn’t force prisoners back into the facility, the county will be beating the deadline by eight months. “We didn’t want to brag on it too much because we might have to go back in there. We’ve kept 100 beds in reserve. If we had to, we could move inmates in there. But, right now, it’s empty.” said Bailey, who inherited the suit from predecessors T.O. Lang and Raymond Frank. People working in the old jail have been transferred to jail facilities at Del Valle, Bailey said.
“We’re not using the old jail at this time, but it doesn’t mean that the problems are over,” said Taylor. “But we’ve come a long way. It’s a sign of the close of the lawsuit.”
The old jail was declared unconstitutional in 1974, and U.S. District Judge Jack Roberts, who has since taken senior status, ordered a series of reforms. More orders were entered in 1976 when Roberts found continuing constitutional violations. He said at the time that a majority of the problems were caused “by the facility itself.”
The latest turn in the litigation came last year, when state officials were added to the suit. Lawyers representing county commissioners, the sheriff and the plaintiffs complained that a growing backlog of felons awaiting transfer to state facilities was causing crowding and financial problems for the county jails. Because of the crowding, lawyers for county officials argued, the old jail had to remain open, despite efforts to shut it. U.S. Magistrate Stephen Capelle ordered state officials added to the suit
last year as defendants. He also ordered a gradual inmate reduction in the old jail, with the closing mandated for Dec. 31.
Last year, state prisons were being closed to new admissions periodically to comply with orders imposed by U.S. District Judge William Wayne Justice to
alleviate crowding. The closings caused a felon backlog in county jails, where they waited until there was room for them in state penitentiaries.
Ironically, the suit that prompted Justice’s orders was filed by Austinite David Ruiz in 1972, the same year the Travis County suit was filed.
Taylor said he, like others who receive daily jail population reports, knew about the emptying of the old jail. If prisoners can be kept out of old jail, “the thrust of the old jail suit has been resolved,” said Taylor. Like Bailey, however, Travis County Attorney Ken Oden was cautious about declaring the jail matter finally closed. “I don’t want to get too far out” said Oden, noting that events could force the old facility to be reused. But, Oden remarked, “this may get us closer to getting out of federal court.”
Taylor was quick to caution, however, that the county’s jail problems are by no means over. Though the issue of the old jail might soon be laid to rest, “we’ve got small offshoots, and the court will continue to be involved either voluntarily or involuntarily, perhaps through other litigation.” Nonetheless, “I feel good” that the end to the 1972 suit appears to be in sight, said Taylor.
The old jail, said the sheriff, “is like an old, bad friend. And you know, it doesn’t look so unconstitutional with no prisoners in it.”