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Repair the Jail!

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The Fiscally-Responsible Alternative: Renovate the Existing County Jail


A scant majority of County and City Council members currently support compelling voters to a second vote (in as many years) on an extra two-tenths of 1 percent sales tax to fund a new jail. Going forward, debate on the merits of this tax proposal should rest upon some basic agreed facts. For example: the definition of a jail. Council members supporting the increased tax seem to assume that a jail is the same as a prison. The current proposed (and expandable) County plan for the LaBounty Road facility is for construction of a prison—not a jail.


Speaking generally, prisons take and hold inmates while jails—if run properly—take and release them. A jail is a county or city facility to house—on a short-term basis—misdemeanant offenders, felony offenders serving short terms, felony offenders awaiting transfer to a state prison for long-term sentences and indigent pretrial defendants who are unable to make bail.

A prison—by contrast—is a state or federal facility that houses long-term felony offenders.


Another basic agreed-upon set of facts must include an accurate accounting of who is in the jail at any given time and the status of each inmate— whether misdemeanant, short term felon, long-term felon awaiting transfer to state prison, and/or indigent defendants held pretrial for inability to pay bail. This information about the inmates in the current County jail should be provided over a specified period of time—such as a month. That “snapshot” of the jail population over time is a basic building block of a valid Needs Assessment. Current jail management has been unwilling or unable to provide that basic information about the inmates in their care, custody and control—despite years of requests to do so. The Sheriff’s apparent inability to provide this information about the County Jail population should concern all of our elected officials and citizens.


The debate over this tax and the County’s proposed plan should also include agreement on the definition of Diversion—which does not apply to a prison. Diversion is only available to reduce the inmate population of a jail. Our County Elected Officials have co-opted the term diversion, by touting all the social services and medical treatment that the new “jail” will provide inmates. This notion warps understanding. Diversion—by definition—keeps people out of jail in the first place, such as those whose primary problems are homelessness, substance abuse, mental illness and poverty. Inmates lose Medicaid coverage the moment they are incarcerated, so every effort should be to divert those who need medical treatment out of jail and into an appropriate medical facility. In addition, inmates held pretrial—some because they simply cannot afford bail—should not constitute the majority of inmates in the County Jail.


Where does the buck stop? Should those accountable for current jail conditions dominate the debate over the solutions?


Where there does appear to be agreement on basic facts is on the inadequate conditions in the County Jail to humanely house inmates, and that those conditions have worsened over time for lack of appropriate management and maintenance. Failure to provide humane housing for inmates in the Whatcom County Jail has been an issue raised by the Sheriff (ostensibly responsible for jail operations) and others for years—yet the conditions persist.


Instead of using available funds to fix the Jail, the Sheriff, Executive and Prosecuting Attorney have repeatedly insisted—without actual proof—that the current County Jail cannot be fixed and the only solution to that problem is a new jail. Meanwhile, deferred maintenance of the jail and consequent deterioration of the facility has continued, even while the County spent millions in 2013 to buy the LaBounty Road property and to design a prison-like facility with included services that should be offered outside of Jail to facilitate diversion.


So far, the Sheriff, County Executive and Prosecuting Attorney have controlled the jail planning process and they have started at the end—with a fully-designed prison facility on LaBounty Road—and have worked backward from there. This process problem is exemplified by the struggle of the Jail Stakeholders Workgroup, which was to draft a Jail Facility Use Agreement (“Agreement”) that allocated capital costs on the County Jail (without addressing the size, location and cost of the facility) and allocation of revenues to the County and the City—without any assurance that there will, in fact, be any funds left over under the County Executive’s current vague projections of capital and operating costs of his new facility.


The Workgroup was led swiftly by the Executive to “mission creep,” when the final draft of the Agreement specified the following “agreed” facts: (1) The County intends to build, own and operate a new Jail located on LaBounty Road in Ferndale; (2) the initial size (Phase I—the project is expandable) will be up to 453 beds with another 36 medical and behavioral health facility beds; (3) the County will place the Sales Tax Measure on the General Election Ballot no later than November 7, 2017; (4) the $110,100,000 estimated project cost is “preliminary;” and (5) the County will issue bonds to finance the Jail.


The preliminary estimate of $110,100,000 (according to the County Executive) establishes the cities’ payments back to the County for the first 3 or 4 years until the TOTAL COST of the jail is known and then there is a “true up” mechanism which allows for the actual cost of construction to be paid back over the 30 years amortization.


To summarize, the County and all signatory cities have all signed blank checks to saddle taxpayers with the costs of moving the jails to a prison on LaBounty Road in Ferndale, despite no real discussion of any alternative locations (or renovation of the existing jail). There is an “agreed upon” size, which is simply a starting point. It is no victory that the initial bed estimate is now (reduced) to up to 453 beds when it is based upon an expandable pod design with no explicit limits on future expansion. There is no limit on the cost of this project, or any seeming concern on the part of our elected officials that there will be an unknown “true up” three years into this project to reflect the actual total cost, for which the parties (and more specifically, the County taxpayers) will be responsible. In addition, there will be bonds issued to finance the project, but there has been no analysis of the debt capacity of Whatcom County—and the ability of the County’s 200,000 men, women and children to pay this debt back over the next 30 years.


The County CEO, the Sheriff and the Prosecuting Attorney must be held to a higher standard of care both in addressing the current inhumane conditions in the jail, and in leading a transparent discussion about whether or not to build a new jail or renovate the existing jail. Instead, they have bulldozed all opposition to lead the Jail Stakeholders Group and Bellingham City and County Councils inexorably toward a move of our current Civic Center to Ferndale, for an expandable jail with a vague cost estimate as a “placeholder,” and an actual cost to be determined years from now.


Whatcom County already has two jails: It’s Time to Renovate the Downtown Bellingham County Jail and Continue Operation of the Irongate Facility


In October 2016, Whatcom County commissioned and released an engineering report on the existing County Jail. Prior to this report by design2LAST, inc. (the “Engineering Report”), the County had no engineering study evaluating the integrity of the existing downtown Bellingham Jail. The Engineering Report found the downtown jail facility to be in fair to good condition.

The Engineering Report described the Irongate (or Division Street) minimum security facility as in “excellent condition.”


The Engineering Report outlines deficiencies in the existing jail that are “fixable.” There is a maintenance backlog, and the facility needs seismic upgrades. The Engineering Report states that:

The infill concrete masonry unit walls that we observed were all in good condition. Concrete masonry units are usually sensitive to building movement and will show signs of cracking even with minor settlement or distortion. The concrete unit masonry walls we observed did not show signs of distress.” [Engineering Report, page 48-49]


This is the County’s own report, and it refutes descriptions of the jail conditions promoted by the Sheriff and the Executive for years—used to support their new jail/prison in Ferndale. The County’s Engineering Report concludes that the existing County jail is in fair to good condition, and that repair and/or renovation is a viable option to allow for decades of use.

While the Executive Summary of the Engineering Report states that a new jail is needed, that summary statement is unsupported by any details that follow in the report. The Engineering report estimates that it would cost $32.4 million to repair and use the two jails that we already have for the next 20 years.


The County must consider this fiscally-responsible alternative to a new jail, and alternatives to incarceration that are already saving capital and operational costs.

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 [...]

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