agencyhistory jail

Travis County jail and county courthouse at 11th & Brazos.
At this time, the Sheriff lived at the jail facility.

Travis County, named for Alamo commander William Barrett Travis, was created Jan. 25, 1840. Originally part of Bastrop County, Travis covered 40,000 square miles and was later divided into 14 separate counties. The population of the city was 629 and the population of the county was 3,138 citizens and 2,063 slaves.

The first Sheriff was elected on March 14, 1840 and won by six votes. Since that time, 32 men and one woman have served as Sheriff of Travis County. Originally, the terms were one year (1840-1846) and then two years (1847-1956). Starting in 1957, the Travis County Sheriff serves four year terms.

In the 1850's, the city and county began to prosper and the growing population made Travis County a breeding ground for lawlessness. The Sheriff was responsible for all law enforcement in the county until the city of Austin created its own police department in 1851.

In 1847, Travis County Commissioners authorized the construction of a county jail and appointed S.M. Swenson to oversee the selection process for construction. An announcement was made on March 6, 1847, that proposals that included plans and specs, would be accepted until March 15, 1847, at “Swishers Tavern.”

Thomas H. Jones was awarded the contract and Thomas William Ward, James G. Swisher, John J. Gambles, and Abner H. Cook were appointed to draft plans. Ward, Swisher and Lamar Moore were appointed to supervise the construction. The jail was built under contract with local Mormons for a cost of $1,800. It was a small double log building constructed on the Old Courthouse block, located on the fourth block west of Congress Avenue, between Guadalupe and San Antonio, West 3rd and 4th streets. The first jail was destroyed by fire in 1855 and a second courthouse and jail facility was built in 1856 at the same location.

The following is a description of the jail taken from county records of the time: "The courthouse and jail is to be of brick, 50’x70’ wide and 20‘ high. The jail is to have two walls, the outer of brick and the inner of dungeon stones, and four feet thick, 16’X16’. Mr. Jones is to receive $16,000 for the completion of said building. He is an energetic man, and proposes to finish the structure in time for the fall court. The jail was often referred to as ‘The Black Hole Calcutta.’ It was not uncommon to have as many as 34 prisoners in the jail at one time.” This courthouse and jail facility was razed in 1906.

Travis County obtained the property for the next location through a 99-year lease with the State of Texas. Located at 11th and Congress, the property belonged to the Texas Game Fish and Oyster Commission. The courthouse was moved to 11th St. and Congress Ave., with the jail being located at 11th and Brazos.

The architects of Lamour & Klerke designed the jail facility. The jail was 50’X 60’, built in one large room enclosed with two foot walls made of solid hard stone. The jailer’s residence was connected to the jail by means of a long corridor. The twenty-four cells were two stories in height, and each cell was 8’ X 10”. By a novel patent lever arrangement, all of the cell doors can be closed and shut by the jailer without coming into contact with the prisoners. The jail, jailers residence and courthouse cost $200,000 and was financed by a local property tax increase and a state approved bond election.

In 1931, the State of Texas gave Travis County land in exchange for breaking their 99-year lease for the courthouse and jail facilities. As a result, Travis County built what still functions as our county courthouse today. At a cost of $1 million, the courthouse was considered a “State of the Art” facility at the time of construction.

The new courthouse building also housed the jail on the 6th and 7th floors, with capacity for 100 inmates. In 1950, the courthouse was expanded at a cost of $225,000 and the jail capacity was increased to 250 inmates. A lawsuit filed in 1972, Musgrove vs. Frank, stated that a jail above a county courthouse was unconstitutional. This lawsuit eventually resulted in the closure of the courthouse jail on July 3, 1990.

In 1978, a jail bond issue was passed, and plans began for a new jail which was scheduled to open between 1981 and 1982 in the Criminal Justice Complex. However, a series of design and operational problems ensued that resulted in litigation between Travis County and the architects and contractors. The county won its lawsuit and the jail finally opened in July 1986 with a capacity of 267 inmates. The original estimate to construct the jail was $13 million, but due to the delays, the final cost was $20 million.

Because of overcrowding, a minimum security jail facility was built in Del Valle, Texas, with an original capacity of 96 inmates at a cost of $1.4 million. Now known as the Travis County Correctional Complex, the facility has grown to more than 19 buildings that house more than 2,500 inmates. The largest portion of the Travis County jail population is at the Travis County Correctional Complex (TCCC) in Del Valle, Texas. TCCC is made up of twelve buildings that house more than 2,500 inmates. Building 12, the newest TCCC building, opened in October 2009. This is the largest single facility within the Sheriff's Office and is larger than most county jails in Texas. At 257,000 square feet, Building 12 has 301 staff members, 193 of which are corrections officers.

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