Dogs and cats approved to stay in jail with Travis County inmates

Bella, a 12-week old puppy from the Austin Animal Center chews a toy outside the Travis County commissioners' meeting Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017. (KXAN/Chris Davis)
Bella, a 12-week old puppy from the Austin Animal Center chews a toy outside the Travis County commissioners' meeting Tuesday, Oct. 31, 2017. (KXAN/Chris Davis)

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Cats and dogs will be allowed to stay in jail with inmates under an agreement Travis County commissioners approved this week.

Commissioners on Tuesday gave their blessing to the expansion of a program that’s been running the last year at the Travis County Correctional Complex that allows inmates there to train dogs a day at a time and earn a certificate for their work.

Now kittens and puppies from the Austin Animal Center will be able to stay for weeks at a time at the jail. AAC’s volunteer program coordinator has been working for two years on the expanded program, she told KXAN at the commissioners’ meeting Tuesday.

“The responsibility of caring for a pet that totally relies on you is a wonderful thing to learn,” Laurelei Combs said, playing with a 12-week-old puppy named Bella she brought to the meeting with her.

Bella, who’s ready for adoption now, is just the kind of dog who could benefit from the program, Combs said. Inmates will have six weeks with dogs in the jail to train them and make them more adoptable, with the ability to do another six weeks if necessary.

Kittens will stay until they’re old enough to adopt out, which may be as little as a couple weeks. “Time is not a limit there,” Combs said. “We always have inmates there; they always want to be in the course.”

“It’s just good for the dogs and cats, and it’s good for the inmates,” Travis County Sheriff Sally Hernandez said, explaining its something the first phase of the program has already shown. Combs said the training program they’ve used for about the last year has seen 140 inmates participate in 24 four-week training courses with dogs from the shelter.

Hernandez was at the meeting Tuesday as well to advocate for the expansion, and ended up signing the paperwork to adopt Bella while waiting to speak to commissioners.

The program will likely start with a handful of dogs and cats, depending on how many inmates are approved and how many animals the center has, but they won’t head to the TCCC immediately. There are still some details unique to an inmate fostering program to sort out.

“Dogs have to go outside and inmates don’t get to go outside, so we have to work that out,” Hernandez said. “Some people are allergic to cats or dogs, so we have to work those things out.”

For the animals, supporters say, it’s an opportunity to make them more adoptable while freeing up space at the shelter; for the inmates, it gives them hope, Combs and Hernandez said, as well as a new skill set to help with their eventual release from jail.

“They don’t just have to sit there in their cell now,” Combs said. “They actually have something to do, something that’s positive.”

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