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Hit the Reset Button on the Jail

By On

The Chelan County Jail was built in 1982, when state grants were available to assist cities and counties with construction of jail facilities. It had an original bed count of 200. The jail was built in the City of Wenatchee, in the center of the County Court and County government “complex.” The Jail is located close to schools, churches, businesses and residences. Above is a photograph of the jail, along with the Chelan County Government buildings next door and across the street, which houses the Commissioners and County Administration.

The governance structure of the Chelan County Jail and summary of conditions in the jail before renovation

In 1998, Chelan County Sheriff’s Deputy Mike Brickert won election as Chelan County Sheriff. At that time, the Chelan County Jail was a division of the Sheriff’s Department. The Jail Director was a position appointed by the Sheriff. Upon his election, the Sheriff dismissed the Jail Director, and appointed a friend who had served as a medic in the army along with the Sheriff. The Sheriff’s appointee had no experience working in a jail, and had no education or experience with management of a jail.

The Commissioners began to receive complaints from both employees of the jail and community members about the management of the Jail. As part of his duties, the Sheriff met regularly with the County Commissioners to discuss issues related to the Sheriff’s Department. The Commissioners asked questions during those meetings regarding jail issues, and failed to receive adequate explanations for reported problems in the jail. In addition, the brief time the Commissioners were allotted to meet with the Sheriff was dominated with discussions of law enforcement issues.

At that time, the Sheriff did not have a risk management department or person, and did not have a designated person to speak with the public or media in response to questions about the jail. The County Commissioners were then asked questions about the jail by the public and media, but were unable to respond because the County Commissioners had no control over, or visibility into the operation or management of the jail.

In 2000, the Sheriff’s first appointee as Jail Director voluntarily left the position. The Sheriff’s next appointee as Jail Director was installed in the position before he was adequately vetted. After his appointment, he was discovered to have had multiple felony convictions. The County Commissioners then learned that the new Jail Director’s experience with jail prior to his appointment had been as an inmate, and this was apparently the “last straw” for the Commissioners.

Chelan County created a Department of Corrections to take over operation of the Jail.

The Chelan County Commissioners had become increasingly concerned about liabilities that appeared to be arising from jail management, and about low morale in the jail among the jail employees. It was a Sheriff’s Lieutenant employed in the jail that first approached the County about legally transferring control of the jail to the County. This Lieutenant had done his own research, and had discovered a provision of the Washington State City and County Jails Act, which states as follows:

A city or county primarily responsible for the operation of a jail or jails may create a department of corrections to be in charge of such jail and of all persons confined therein by law, subject to the authority of the governing unit. If such department is created, it shall have charge of jails and persons confined therein. If no such department of corrections is created, the chief law enforcement officer of the city or county primarily responsible for the operation of said jail shall have charge of the jail and of all persons confined therein (Chapter 70.48.090 (4) RCW).

On July 1, 2001, the Chelan County Commissioners presented a resolution to create a County Department of Corrections under the authority of the County, and it passed unanimously. The new Jail Director was immediately appointed. There was never any challenge raised to this decision, including by the Sheriff. The union employees also did not challenge the transfer. In fact, by December 2001, thirty-one (31) sheriff’s deputies had approved a no-confidence vote of the sheriff. He did not seek re-election at the end of his first—and only—term.

Before and After: The County Commissioners gained direct and transparent communication regarding jail issues and transformed the culture at the jail.

Chelan County first renamed the jail the “Regional Justice Center.” The County’s newly-appointed Jail Director began regular meetings (every two weeks) with the County Commissioners to discuss jail-specific issues. One of the first items of business was to address the high rate of turnover at the jail related to low employee morale. When the jailers were employed in the Sheriff’s Department, they could not voice concerns over jail management without fear of retaliation. Now that the Jail Director was a County Commission appointee, they began to understand that they had a direct line of communication to the Commissioners. What ultimately occurred was a change in the culture at the jail, and what resulted from that change was almost zero turn over—except for retirement. In addition, there was an almost immediate and nearly total reduction in claims/liabilities related to inmate property and safety.

The Corrections employees distinguished themselves from the Sheriff’s Department.

When the jail employees were part of the Sheriff’s Department, they were viewed as second-class employees compared to the Sheriff’s deputies employed in the Sheriff’s Department. The jail employees were trained at the Corrections Academy. The Sheriff’s deputies were trained at the Law Enforcement Academy. Some corrections employees had not been accepted to the Law Enforcement Academy, and so went to the Corrections Academy as a second choice. In addition, even those who chose the Corrections Academy as their first career choice saw how much more the Sheriff valued his deputies, and were aware of the diversion of resources/budgeted funds to the Sheriff’s Department while the jail “fell apart.” Therefore, many corrections employees wanted to get out of the jail and into the Sheriff’s Department.

There was a path for corrections officers to “test” into the Law Enforcement Academy, but all of the applicants were heavily screened. They were rated slightly higher (as having law enforcement experience) by virtue of their work at the jail. Every year, scores of corrections officers would try to test in to the Law Enforcement Academy, although only a few would be accepted. The rank and file jail employees understood that the jail was simply a “training ground” for officers who viewed their time there as a step to greater respect (and money) working in the Sheriff’s Department.

The Corrections Employees Received New Uniforms.

The Jail Director reported that the employees wanted new uniforms and badges, to reflect a separation from the Sheriff’s Department. The jail employees wanted to be viewed as Corrections Officers, rather than sheriff’s employees, to emphasize the value of corrections as a viable career choice.

The County negotiated new contracts with employees that explicitly addressed advancement potential within the jail.

When the jail employee’s contracts with the County expired, they chose to leave the Sheriff’s Association, where there was a clear division between the law enforcement and corrections officers. Corrections officers were universally viewed by Sheriff’s Deputies with less respect. Therefore, the jail employees joined a new union (AFSCME) and the County negotiated the new employment contracts. They explicitly addressed giving jailers the ability to progress to and “try out” different positions within corrections, and to allow for advancement within the system. The County wanted correction officers statewide to understand that if they wanted a career in corrections with advancement potential then Chelan County was the place to do it. The County increased wages, and even though the jailers still did not (and do not now) make as much as Sheriff’s Deputies, these changes made them feel more valued. Turnover ceased, and no corrections officers thereafter sought to “test out” of the jail and into the Law Enforcement Academy.

The County Commissioners directly addressed and resolved inmate property and other liability claims.

The County used to receive claims/lawsuits from prisoners with respect to lost property, and the County was self-insured on those claims. As an example, a former prisoner might claim that when arrested he turned over a Rolex watch and when released, there was nothing but a pair of socks. Once the Commissioners began to meet with the Jail Director, the issue of handling inmate property became a priority. When the Sheriff was in charge, inmate property would be collected, put in a bin with the inmate’s name, and placed in (unlocked) storage. The Jail Director developed a new system where inmate property would be photographed, and recorded in an inventory signed by both the inmate and the corrections officer handling the property. The individual bins would then be labeled and placed in locked storage. The County has now reduced the inmate property claims to virtually zero.

Now the Commissioners are in the loop on all jail liabilities as they arise, and getting risk managers involved early in the process has been critical to cutting costs for liabilities arising from jail operations.

Chelan County approved a $10 million renovation of the Jail (rather than construction of a new Jail) with full budget and operational control

In 2008, there was discussion among Chelan County elected officials and administrators about the possible need for a larger jail. A panel was convened to discuss cost, location and size. There was some support for locating the jail far outside of town, but the panel decided that the benefits to having already built the jail in the middle of the court complex far outweighed the option of building out of town. The court complex was where all the players were located—the courts and judges; the prosecutors and defense counsel; the defendants and their families or other community ties. The panel explicitly addressed the “social justice” piece of the system—specifically the importance of fostering whatever family or community ties the inmates had and recognizing that a remote jail might jeopardize the ability of family and friends to support the inmate.

In addition, the panel decided that there would be a significant cost savings in transport of inmates if the jail remained in the court complex. Chelan County has virtually NO transport costs. According to the panel research, transport of inmates can also give rise to major liabilities.

Ultimately—in a public process—the panel agreed that a renovation in place was the best option. In 2009, Chelan County undertook a $10 million upgrade to the Regional Justice Center. The County—among other things—upgraded infrastructure, security, information technology, and increased beds with an annex (that they no longer need or use).

Chelan County has had no issues with liabilities associated with location of the jail in the middle of the city. The liabilities that most concern Chelan County are those that arise inside the jail itself, such as mental health issues, the handling of inmate medical care, suicides and the safety of their corrections officers. Chelan County has not had liabilities arise from public safety issues, and the Chelan County officials understand that “liability” can be used as a buzzword to scare the public. Based on the Chelan County experience, the safety of the public has not been compromised by locating the jail in the city and by County control of both the budget and operation of the jail. In fact, liabilities have been reduced.

The Chelan County experience proved that Renovation of the Whatcom County Jail in downtown Bellingham should be considered a viable alternative to construction of a large horizontal jail in Ferndale

Each county in Washington State is unique, and they are all set up differently. There is no “plug and play” approach to criminal justice reform. However, in Chelan County, the decision of whether to build a new jail in a remote location or to renovate the existing complex was made by the Commissioners together with the citizens of Chelan County, and they chose to renovate—at a fraction of the cost of building new. They also sided with the overwhelming national data that supports construction and renovation of vertical jails close to all the participants in the criminal justice system.

Next, how Walla Walla County saved taxpayers a fortune and used a novel approach to renovate their downtown Walla Walla County Jail.

About Juliette Daniels

Writer • Member since May 11, 2017

Juliette is a licensed attorney in both Washington State and Texas. After spending 15 years working in litigation for two large Houston law firms, she moved to Bellingham in 2004 and eventually [...]

Comments by Readers

Tim Paxton

Jun 18, 2017

Maybe a Council field trip to Chelan County to visit their jail, might informative also. 

Q;  Would the County Council vote two of their own to spend a night in the Whatcom County Jail, as is, and report back to the public how well Jack Louws is doing  managing tax money spent with this size jail?   

I am pretty sure that each Council Member can think of two of their co-legislator that could use a nice night the slammer.  They could even pretend they are poor and can’t afford excessive bail handed out by the courts.  Or, pretend they are mentally ill, to fit it better.

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