There are 39 counties in the State of Washington. Many of them took advantage of State and Federal funds to build city and county jails in the 1970s and 1980s. Whatcom County is not the first County or City to address the need to either renovate an existing 1970s or ‘80s jail or build a new one. Whatcom County and City officials should take a close look at how other counties have handled this issue, and learn from both the successes and the mistakes made by other counties on the road to addressing the same issue facing Whatcom County and Bellingham today: To renovate the existing jail or build a new large-scale jail?
The County’s simultaneous selection of Jail Contractor DLR as “Jail Planner” and the LaBounty Road Property as the “Preferred Site” for a new Jail defied all evidence-based principles of effective jail planning
When the County Executive, Sheriff and Council selected both its so-called “jail planner” (DLR) and at the same time focused on the LaBounty Road Property as the only site for the jail, they “put the cart before the horse.” An objective jail planner would follow an evidence-based process developed nationwide over time by other cities and counties that have faced and resolved similar jail “problems.”
A professional and objective Jail Planner should:
(1) Work with the County/City to determine a sustainable and realistic budget;
(2) determine possible funding sources;
(3) Gather information and evaluate the current jail physical plant and operations;
(4) consider requirements of current corrections standards and case law;
(5) demonstrate familiarity with contemporary jail practices;
(6) collect data over time about the inmate population and perform an evidence-based “Needs Assessment” to determine optimum “bed” size and other components of the jail;
(7) analyze the impact on jail size of implementation of effective “diversion” programs;
(8) develop multiple options to address identified jail issues, including:
(a) a sustainable budget and funding options;
(b) potential jail locations;
(c) cost to renovate or build new (including property acquisition costs);
(d) cost to operate (including funding options);
(e) facility design; and
(7) involve stakeholders—especially the public—to help determine which option is best for the community. See e.g., “Building Community Support for New Jail Construction,” U.S. Department of Justice National Institute of Corrections; “Jail Capacity Planning Guide, A Systems Approach,” U.S. Department of Justice National Institute of Corrections; and “Evidence-Based Adult Corrections Programs: What Works and What Does Not,” Washington State Institute for Public Policy.
Instead, the County seemingly implemented the Jail Planning Task Force recommendation to hire a professional and objective Jail Planner—selecting a biased big jail industry consultant/designer already hand-picked by the County Executive and Sheriff, one previously included in Jail Planning Task Force meetings so that the consultant (DLR) could learn “what the County wants.” At the same time, the County did an end-run on any evidence-based effective jail planning process by both making the site selection and hand-picking a jail industry consultant without completion of an objective evaluation and assessment of all the relevant jail issues - to site selection.
Whatcom County simultaneously provided DLR the County’s criteria for a new jail and Sheriff’s Headquarters, and selected the site for the new facilities. Then—again almost simultaneously—both the Supplemental and Final Environmental Impact Statements on the LaBounty Road Property, and DLR’s final report on the “Whatcom County Adult Corrections Facilities & Sheriff’s Headquarters” were released to the public (both in September 2013).
The County proved to the citizens of Whatcom County, that all relevant decisions were made before any public input was requested or received. Public input was “allowed,” only when the law required it, and not as a regular and welcome part of a transparent process to address the County’s largest (and most expensive to operate) capital improvement project. The “trappings” of democratic processes may have been loosely applied, but to date, the County has proven true William Penn’s observation: “Let the people think they govern, and they will be governed.”
A Cautionary Tale of the Thurston County Jail
Thurston County has approximately 270,000 residents (25% more than Whatcom County), and includes the County seat of Olympia. In 1995, Thurston County voters approved a 1/10 of 1 % increase in the Jail Facilities Sales and Use Tax (RCW 82.14.450) that had been sold to voters to fund capital improvements to Thurston County detention facilities. Thurston County set up a Fund with the Department of Revenue for the deposit of revenue received from this tax. The Fund accrued $17 million, which was used to construct new juvenile detention facilities.
By 1998, the Thurston County main jail (built in 1978) was reportedly overcrowded. Thurston County Commissioners then approved the purchase of an old fish processing warehouse in Tumwater for $3.8 million, to remodel it into a “new” Jail. , the County decided the 65,000 square foot facility wasn’t good for anything other than storage. Thurston County still owes $2.85 million on the building—$2.4 million on bonds for the original purchase and $450,000 on bonds used to fund a 2013 roof replacement and seismic upgrade (to supplement other funds used for upgrades to the building). The total cost of the 2013 remodel was nearly $2 million. At this point, Thurston County has spent ~$6 million on a building the County has never used for its originally-intended purpose as a detention facility.
Thurston County eventually began spending some of the 1995 Jail tax funds on law enforcement operations (for example, the Sheriff’s Department) rather than saving for future capital improvements to detention facilities. As in Whatcom County, the original wording of the ballot initiative approving the tax was broad, so spending those tax funds on operating costs or other law enforcement purposes was legal. When Thurston County focused again on the need to repair or replace the main jail, there was no money left in the 1995 Jail tax fund for capital improvements.
In 2003, Thurston County asked voters to approve another increase in the Jail Sales and Use Tax for the renovation or replacement of the main jail. The voters rejected that ballot
initiative. The County went back a second time to ask taxpayers to approve a $103 million Regional Justice Center with a bond proposal. The voters rejected that request in May 2004. Undeterred, Thurston County Commissioners moved forward with plans to build a new jail (now called the “Accountability and Restitution Center” or “ARC”) in Tumwater, and did so by issuing $43 million in bonds - an actual total cost of closer to $68 million when counting the $3 million in interest paid by the County yearly.
In 2007, construction on the ARC began and it was completed in 2010. It then sat empty for because the County lacked funds to operate it. Yet, the County still paid $430,000.00 a year (on top of the $3 million in interest payments on the bond) to maintain the building during the many years it took to figure out how to open the jail and pay for its operations. That included 4 full-time employees who worked in the empty building and (among other maintenance tasks) flushed the toilets regularly. During the 5 years the new
jail was empty, the County Commissioners pointed the finger at Thurston County’s Sheriff, who pointed the finger back at the Commissioners.
The building finally opened in September 2015—five years after its completion. By then, it appeared that the ARC was improperly designed in many respects, and has—and will continue to—require significant modification. Thurston County’s “process” is a tutorial in how not to build a jail. There is still time—in spite of the speed with which the County is moving the “Jail Train” forward—for Whatcom County and Bellingham to hit the “reset” button and reconsider—as the County Council resolved—a downtown Bellingham site and a more fiscally-responsible plan, including renovation of the current County jail.
Next: A closer look at Counties that have renovated existing jails or built in downtown areas, as well as an analysis of a proposal for renovation of Whatcom County’s downtown jail.