Elevators, Smelevators

…Pants on Fire!

…Pants on Fire!

The fetid stench of the incarceration industrial complex is once again filling the air. Within political minutes of Whatcom County announcing its intention to take a third try at a new jail bond, the sheriff announced he has shut down visitation at the jail because the elevators have quit working. Really?

Elevators work for a long time. The Biltmore Estate in Asheville, North Carolina, features two operational Otis elevators that were installed in 1895. An elevator from 1896 still works at the New Bedford City Hall in Massachusetts. Many from the early 1900s are still going; just google “oldest operational elevators.” So why did the jail’s fail?

It’s just bad maintenance. The sheriff has a longstanding policy of not spending money on the jail. He has often said he hates to throw good money after bad. He’s let it run down into inhumane conditions to justify his proposed, palatial new jail. What he really means is he wants more money—your money. And he doesn’t intend to go it alone. As early as 2008, Sheriff Elfo explained to a gathering of Democrats how contracts with DHS, ICE and INS could benefit the county through a new jail.  

Like so much of the sheriff’s ongoing jail efforts, the elevator failure doesn’t pass the smell test. In fact, the new Cascadia Daily News recently reported that the county maintenance department got the elevators running in a couple hours. So will visitation resume? No way!

Instead, the sheriff and his new jail supporters will start their old refrains of a “crumbling building” and “outdated equipment.” It’s all humbug. The only thorough structural analysis of the building concluded it is structurally sound, founded on bedrock, and capable of supporting additional levels, for which the generator and other building systems were originally sized.

It’s not that it couldn’t be better, or that it doesn’t have some problems. But a $36 - $50 million upgrade will be less strain on taxpayers than $110 million for Elfo’s plan - and that’s just for phase one! Elfo might, far from prying eyes, want to play with the feds at his new, big, flat, rural jail, but both the NIC and DOJ guidance he cited for its rationale actually say the opposite: The best place for a jail is next to the courthouse. Elfo has never seriously considered this option.

In case readers are having trouble remembering, or keeping track of, the sheriff’s previous deceptions, many were outlined in “Whatcom Justice Reform: The Big Fib.”.If you care about your tax dollars, it’s worth your time to search this site for “Whatcom County Jail” or “New Jail,” because citizens have already put a lot of watchdogging into the sheriff’s proposed boondoggle.

In the meantime, the new jail effort needs a new leader and spokesman—because we really can no longer trust what the sheriff has to say on the subject.

About Tip Johnson

Citizen Journalist and Editor • Member since Jan 11, 2008

Tip Johnson is a longtime citizen interest advocate with a record of public achievement projects for good government and the environment. A lifelong student of government, Tip served two terms [...]

Comments by Readers

David A. Swanson

Feb 14, 2022

(Smelevator) musik to our ears!

If the Bond issue passes, maybe the Sheriff can do some good with the $110 million+ and  add some long-overdue tunes to the musik track when the smelevators are back up and running, “Jailhouse Rock,” “County Jail Blues,” and, of course, “Send my mail to the Bellingham Jail.”

I am guessing that along with the Bob Marley tune, “I shot the sheriff, ” a favorite in Bellingham, “Smelevator to Heaven,” won’t be on the musik track, though.

In the meantime, he is likely listening to “Get off my Elevator,” by Kool Keith,




Tim Surratt

Feb 15, 2022

Seems like the Sheriff and the District Attorney are not exactly on the same page.  Didn’t the DA talk about reducing the number of people who were incarcerated and using other approaches?  I thought that jails as a business were on the decline, at least in terms of what people want to support.  Then there is the Herald piece today on increased car break ins.  Is there an implication that if we had more space to lock up the ‘bad guys’ we could pursue them more vigorously?  True criminal justice reform does NOT start by builiding a new jail!


Ray Kamada

Feb 15, 2022

Whatcom voters have twice rebuffed Sheriff Elfo’s new jail proposal. But whatever became of the compromise that he move his administrative offices out of that building, so as to make room for an adequate number of restrooms for female prisoners as well as address other inhumane issues? 


Satpal Sidhu

Feb 16, 2022

Hi All, this issue of having a humane Public Safety and Justice Facility is a serious matter. I don’t think this project is connected to any one individual or any one office. This is an important part of our county infrastructure. A meaningful discussion and presenting alternate views is welcome,  becasue failure of ballots did not make the problem disappear. Rather the current facility is deteriorating fast and It is becoming more dire and expensive by the day. We continue to house the the very people (inmates), we wish to serve under better conditions, in an inhumane facility for no ability to provide behaviorial health services or drug rehabilitation, or reduction of recidivism while they are in custody. My heart goes out to the Corrections Deputies who have spent decades of their career in this horrific inhumane place, while the inmates are there for less than a year.  I would encourage different voices to join in to shape the future rather than dwell on the past.


Tip Johnson

Feb 18, 2022

The structural analysis (Goldman?), now disappeared from County records, found the jail to be structurally sound. DOJ and NIC guidance say the jail should be next to the courthouse. Renovation and upgrades will cost less than a new jail - and the toxic site could be sold. 

Encouraging the land speculation around a new law and order district out Labounty way will strip ancillary services out of Bellingham and eventually warrant moving the courthouse out next to the jail - at considerable additional public expense.


Atul Deshmane

Feb 19, 2022

I’m a community member. Local elected official. Member of the SAC. 

We should learn from the past. The Listening Tour and the Vera Institute Report commissioned by the County are good resources that we have not heeded yet. Both documents suggest we should conduct a Community Needs Assessment (not a Jail Facilities Needs Assessment). Sinks, doors, elevators, etc.. are components of a facility. Is there an incompatibility between facility requirements and specifications? If so, we must prepare a chart showing that. But how do we define those requirements.?

Here’s how. A Community Needs Assessment will define a series of wants/needs. Those wants/needs then translate into facility and service requirements. Those requirements then translate into facility specifications and job descriptions. This, BTW, is how you do any big capital project. We have had plenty of time to do this the right way and we still can. We have to be steadfast even when someone pulls the fire alarm while we are trying to do the important work.

Let’s stay committed, work together, and really figure out how to serve the communities needs.


Steve Harris

Feb 21, 2022

I may write and submit a letter to the editor on this issue…so much obfuscation and outright lies over the years that seems to continue.  From what’s being whispered around now… the new jail (and Sheriff’s Office) is being planned to be constructed on property purchased (or planned to be purchased) next to the current Irongate facility.  —The same building that was promised (to concerned neighbors) to only be a temporary solution until a permanent facility could be built elsewhere. NOTE: The Humane Society currently owns two large parcels adjoining to the South of the current facility.

The public used to be able to look at county budget docs and clearly see where the jail tax (passed in 2004) was being spent.  The county budget used to have separate categories for the jail and the rest of the Sheriff’s Office.  One could easily track how the county used that new tax revenue to supplant GF dollars (and still do).  Now, the Jail and Sheriff’s Office have combined budget categories and all that 2004 tax money (~ $5million per year) and GF money is simple dumped into what’s called the “jail fund”.  So much for transparency…


Joy Gilfilen

Feb 27, 2022

Thank you Tip for writing this piece, and raising red flags on the situation again.  It hurts to laugh, and it does relieve some pressure when people of intelligence combined with history speak truth.  Thank you to the other commenters for speaking up as well – it takes courage to speak out on this subject.  Most people want to pretend the problems that it brings up will just go away if they avoid the topic, and brush the repetitive tax trauma under the rug.  It hasn’t worked for the 12 years I have been diagramming the issue, and the Whatcom County corporate leaders are still striving to build the school-to-prison pipeline based on speculation.   

Both Steve Harris and Atul have good ideas for tackling the problem logically.  They are on the right pathway to investigating and solving key pieces of the puzzle – money and cash flow questions, and people issues.  Let’s support their leadership, and I look forward to reading articles and listening to their ideas.     

I believe we are in the middle of an overt civic collision of government, institutional, and commercial corporations fighting over government contracts, civic entitlements, power, privilege, prestige and money.  These corporate business conflicts are trampling on the people, and do not have an off-ramp to honestly help the people who have been traumatized in the collision.  So instead, they say, “lock ‘em up so we can make money on the repeat business.” Watch the video I did called WhatcomCounty98225 - Civic Blindspots for some history of our challenges, related to the Camp 210 debacle when the stress accelerated, and how I believe we have to work to pull us out of this.  

Satpal, I agree that this is serious business.  So serious that the old guard leaders might be wise to wake up to the fact that we are in a new time, new place, with new ideas, new knowledge and new opportunities (if we are smart enough to see them). 

Inhumane treatment of humans is a leadership problem, not a building problem.  Hazing, marginalizing, shaming and shunning humans who make mistakes is inhumane:  criminalizing, punishing and impoverishing them is expensive and ultimately self-destructive to the whole living community network.  Check out the iChange Justice podcast for some insights into what is happening on your watch inside the Whatcom County Jail and Justice System. 

Research shows that mass incarceration is a losing game.  I have found that we have a compound systems failure that resembles a kind of human meat grinder with a high churn rate.  The result is chaos in the streets, and we leaders are being called to disentangle the wreckage and find out what is truly wrong before we can “fix it”.  Buying the most expensive buildings in town to cover up the meat grinder will not fix the long-term damage to our children.  Children who are dying from increasing suicide rates, mental health and trauma issues; children who are feeling the impacts and inheriting our leadership failures.   

Right now the prudent action is to figure out how to save our humanity’s soul, to bring homeless people back into the community, to reverse the criminalization of crisis, and to dig out of leadership chaos. 

This is not a matter of altruism or charity. It is not a luxury. It is the rational, long-term business decision to make. In the end the system cannot survive without productive people. When large numbers of people drop out of the system it dies, because there is no one left to pay for it.

That is especially true for local government. If an increasing tax bill is shouldered by a reducing number of functional taxpayers, the system will eventually collapse. That also goes for the local business community. Who is going to spend money in local businesses, if the so-called middle class is allowed to slowly slip into homelessness? How are businesses going to pay their local rates and taxes?  Ask the seniors how they are going to survive in Whatcom County?  How many of them are already homeless, or at risk of losing their homes right now?


Joy Gilfilen

Feb 27, 2022

Atul, a current member of the SAC, made astute recommendations (above) but did not include the hyperlinks.  So taking the time to review the Vera Report and the Listening Tour Recommendations leads to doing to the same conclusion:  doing a Community Needs Assessment that is based on people’s wants and needs is essential to good planning.  

Below I add the links and I want to supplement with personal insight for I have attended virtually all the meetings that produced these reports, and dozens of ancillary meetings.  There is often a disconnect between the language used by the common person and the consultants who write these reports, and even more so between legal language used in a court of law related to inerpreting statistics.  So things sometimes are misinterpreted or misunderstood.     

To clarify:  the people are asking for an honest health and safety needs assessment that shows the social services gaps that curently exist, so they can see what is wrong and how we can help fix the problems.  We care about our neighbors, our children and friends who are falling through the cracks and we don’t know what we can do to help stem the tide of hopelessness, mental distress, addictions and homelessness in the County.  We remember that there used to be many services that are currently missing in action; so when we cannot even see the problems, we cannot help fix them.    

The Community’s Needs Assessment the people want is one that focuses on how we can all help repair the gaps in the quality of early eduction, intercept substane abuse and mental stressors, do prevention and intervention to stop  losses so people can get back to work faster after a crisis disrupts their lives. We know it is a community problem, not just a law enforcement problem.  

The facilities demand focus is typically only relative to what is under the government’s legal control…so it is all about housing people who break laws, and focussing on paying for law enforcement, emergency services, hospitals, arrests, jails, courts and post arrest issues.  All of these exponentially accelerate public costs of social failure. 

People know that when we solve the real human needs, the demand for more law enforcement involvement, for more courts and jail bed space, for more high cost crisis services and the demand for building another financially consumptive and costly public works facilities evaporates.  This is just common sense, and practical planning.  

Here are the quick links for the readers convenience.   

1) Report to Whatcom County Stakeholders on Jail Reduction Strategies published shortly before the 2017 Jail Sales Tax Initiative was put on the ballot. 

2) Findings from the Whatcom County Council’s Listening Tour published in 2018. In the consultants words, after people were asked why they voted against the jail tax, the overwhelming conclusion was: 

- People want to invest in programs that prevent incarceration and address root causes.

- People want tax dollars to be used for rehabilitation and treatment services instead of investing large sums in a jail.

- People want those who have been incarcerated to leave jail as contributing members to the community.

That was the goal at the end of 2019 as far as the people went.  The people had voted down the earlier jail tax initiatives in 2015, in 2017, and they thought the County had truly listened to them in 2018.  They felt reassured that the County officials were  planning to do an honest Community Needs Assessment as the next step.  

Unfortunately that is not where we are today.  In 2020 the game went sideways, but that is another story.


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