That Louwsy Jail Deal

FEMA camp or new county seat?

FEMA camp or new county seat?

• Topics: Bellingham,

It is appropriate for the city to consider what is needed in a jail agreement, what is needed in a jail and what is needed in jail alternatives.  The county should do more of this, too.  A lot more.

However, I question the propriety of either council continuing to engage with the current jail proposal.  Refusing to submit to the false urgency of the manufactured jail crisis could foster a more comprehensive approach to the future of our regional justice services.

I would draw your attention to a Whatcom Watch article in which Riley Sweeney outlines the cloak of secrecy under which this proposal emerged:

Process for New Jail Cloaked in Secrecy

Besides the opaque procedure for the property acquisition, the lack of a credible needs assessment or public participation process should be ringing alarm bells.  The proposal has bounced around from 800-some beds to 600-some, 500-some and now 400-some.  The right figure is very important and requires competent planning.  This has been sorely lacking.

It is very important because Medicaid benefits terminate immediately upon incarceration.  Medical is already about 40% of jail operations and one of the fastest growing components.  If half the folks landing in jail could be better managed in diversionary programs that preserve their benefits, we suddenly save 20% of operations off the top and provide citizens better outcomes at much lower costs than those incurred under incarceration.

Policy makers should also consider why the jail is crumbling.  Did supervision fail to assure that specifications were achieved in the construction?  Shouldn't we find out why before embarking upon the construction of another large public facility?  Why is the jail still such a mess, with leaking sewage and unsafe wiring?  We already passed one sales tax increase to address the problems.  Officials appear to have chosen to let the jail deteriorate.  Call a plumber.

An analysis of 14 land assessments on eight parcels surrounding the jail property produced an average value of $30,212 per acre.  The jail property itself is assessed at $44,329 per acre.  Why did the County pay $149,468 per acre? 

I looked up the Jepson/Janicki jail property proposal submission and found the parcel number but it wouldn't search in the county’s property database.  So I did a brute force property owner search for Whatcom County and looked for LaBounty, finding a new parcel number.  However, the new parcel number shows only the most recent sale to the county and the current assessment - prior sales history disappeared with the old parcel number.

I went to the Assessor’s office and tried to get a bit further but ran aground, except that a component parcel appears to have belonged to Charles Wilder, registered at an Arizona address that when searched in Google maps displays an elementary school in New River, AZ.  I wrote the Assessor on September 8th to ask for the histories of the old parcel numbers, but as yet have not had a reply.

According to Sweeney’s article, "Throughout this process, now County Executive Louws pushed for a quick selection of the jail property..."  What was the hurry? Ironically, Louws himself helped establish the unprecedented comparable property value that cost taxpayers $4,177,176 over the jail site's $1,761,206 valuation. 

In 2000, Louws bought six acres catty-corner from the jail site for $660,000.  He sold it to Homeland Security in 2010 for $4,850,000 with two buildings currently valued at $2,538,240.  Because of that sale, the land is uniquely assessed, well over any nearby property, at $240,413 per acre. 

Even if the land doubled in value over the ten years Louws had it, it appears the Feds conveniently handed him a tidy million dollar premium just as he prepared to run for county executive, a position from which he engineered the somewhat sketchy jail property acquisition - next to Homeland Security, a Federal Civil Defense Highway, the railroad, and the airport with the joint Emergency Operations Center.

That's starting to sound uncomfortably like the makings of a FEMA camp.  Folks in jail require frequent connection to the courts. Should we also anticipate the relocation of the county seat to this Ferndale location when sustaining the also crumbling courthouse becomes unmanageable? If we are posturing for a regional justice center, shouldn't it be done in the open with the involvement of policy makers and the public?  Piecemeal approaches always benefit the schemers.

The current jail proposal intends to use 100% of funding available for public safety, leaving nothing for emergency services, fire protection or ancillary services.  Law and justice is the largest and fastest growing component of the county budget and is poised to explode under the current proposal.  It is likely to devour the entire budget, with potential to interfere with the delivery of other goods and services taxpayers require.

Finally, it is worth remembering that Louws, quoted in the Cascadia Weekly, weakly explained that he simply "lost track" of pursuing jail alternatives, even though he acknowledged it was one of his "assignments."

That's just not good enough.  It is past time for a do-over on the jail proposal.  A different jail proposal might target banked property tax value and preserve the dedicated sales tax option for application to a broader range of services.

The councils should tell Louws and Elfo, "No, thank you," and get to work on something designed to help our neighbors, friends and family members stay in jobs or school and out of jail.  That's the way to save costs.  Taxpayers should thank the folks at the Restorative Community Coalition, and legislators should take to heart the ideas in their Report to Taxpayers.

“Stop punishing taxpayers and start rebuilding community.”

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

Alex McLean

Sep 15, 2015

Thanks Tip—you’ve offered a well-rounded potpourri of ponders here.

I haven’t been able to get involved at all in this issue, I’m ashamed to confess, but it seems an important one if we are willing to lock out all our financial options for decades in order to build this trundling and pricey pig.

What I keep wondering is why it is, if they claim so dearly to love “liberty” and fiscal conservative ideals, that our pals in the extreme or soft Right do not murmur a peep against this scheme? Doesn’t locking up an obscene number of non-violent Americans in a $110 million wet dream of Big Government wasteful spending irritate them? Is a massive taxpayer sop to employ dozens of potentially unnecessary Sheriff Department staff, and their sparkly new headquarters, just all super peachy-keen by them? The Sheriff’s Guild (a union—*gasp!*) isn’t a special interest so much as it is the most specialest interest?

Perhaps I miss the point: Spending money on teachers or social welfare workers or libraries (remember those silly olden times when Bellingham wanted to spend money on a new library?) is the REAL problem, the real waste of taxpayer money. Unlike the pure government employees, none of those sissy public service employees get to trot around with guns and body armor. They don’t look like awesome badass robots—not cool, not at all—so why waste our money on them?


Tip Johnson

Sep 15, 2015

Dude.  I L O V E   librarians. Especially with glasses.  And books.


Sandy Robson

Sep 16, 2015

As he does so well, Tip J. gets to the heart of things in his article above. The headline is so good, too.

Tip J. wrote:
“Finally, it is worth remembering that Louws, quoted in the Cascadia Weekly, weakly explained that he simply ‘lost track’ of pursuing jail alternatives, even though he acknowledged it was one of his ‘assignments.’”

Besides the fact that the current plan in front of Whatcom County for a new jail is a fail (I think that phrase originated with Walter Haugen?), the information in this article just reinforces the idea that in the November election, Whatcom voters need to lose track of Jack. I don’t want a County Executive that “lost track” of something so important.


Dick Conoboy

Sep 16, 2015


What you are looking at is another huge money transfer from the citizens, not really to the government but through the government to the builders and developers of this jail.  As time goes on and the costs of operation begin to be too much of a burden (heh, heh), there will be cries to privatize the jail operations and sell it off the the prison-industrial complex. Then we will have occupancy quotas by contract so even if diversion programs would be better alternatives, we will be forced to place offenders in our “Hotel Whatcom” near Ferndale lest occupancy rates fall below contract levels.


Walter Haugen

Sep 16, 2015

Yep - I came up with The Jail Is a Fail soundbite. However, Glenn Stewart and Joy Gilfilen were waaay ahead of me on publicizing and attacking this jail boondoggle. Sandy Robson and Dena Louise Jensen have also been doing a lot of good work publicizing this problem for some time.

It is not a conspiracy theory to be worried about the prison-industrial complex, welfare for law enforcement syndrome (WELES, as in it gives me “the willies”), or a FEMA camp in Ferndale. We had an experiment in using convict labor to pick apples in Quincy in 2011 (massive fail); welfare for law enforcement due to the three-strikes law is the main reason California has a massive state deficit, and the confinement in the Superdome after Katrina hit in 2005 was the prototype for the FEMA/Homeland Security response of incarcerating citizens en masse.

One of the variables that few progressives seem to consider is the energy component. I just returned from France and the energy footprint per capita per year is about half of the US. In other words, not only is a modern country able to have everything we have at half the energy cost, this means that any reduction in lifestyle for Americans has more impact on individual psychology, group dynamics and state-level policies, than in other countries worldwide with modern lifestyles. This inability to cope PLUS the inability to get anything done at all levels of government means that the US will respond similarly to the collapse of the Weimar Republic. Disagree if you want, but I see a straight line between the wasteful US lifestyle and the rise of fascism. Of course we warned you all about this 45 years ago, but most of you were more interested in your careers and your lovelife. Now we are in deep shit and Jack Louws is the point man for the prison-industrial complex in Ferndale. Oops!


Alex McLean

Sep 16, 2015

jail roaded


Alex McLean

Sep 16, 2015

The private sector is already keyed in, tuned up, for our bank-busting boondoggle.


Joy Gilfilen

Sep 17, 2015

Tip, this is the tip of the iceberg, and what is coming next is really, really cold - cold walls, cold jobs, cold everything.

Unless we, the people, stand up together across all our divides and start acting like the free citizens we still are.  We must learn to think fresh about what is really going on inside our own community. And take solid citizen action…not violent action…solid, straight up citizen action. We have a deep and serious systems problem…and it will not be solved with piecemeal action. It cannot be solved with a new tax, and a new jail. 

We are going to need a groundswell of teamwork, certainty and confidence to galvanize a movement for conscious and intentional recovery. 

It took me awhile to fully understand the magnitude of the problem we face.  Even though I have been studying on this for five years, it took a long time to unravel the snarl:  This issue really is the one most critical issue facing Whatcom County citizens right here, right now.  We will either take back our own community through right action, or we will give the power to the Executive branch and enforcers.  It is a choice we are making on November 3 with the jail tax issue.  And this ripples out to affect all the other biases and injustices we experience everywhere.

In both human experience and in systems theory…vision becomes reality.  Many say…“you get what you pay for.”  Do we really want to pay for more jails, more punishment, more regulatory branch of government…guaranteed to grow with a blank check?

Pay attention to the fact that in our economy…whoever controls the money, controls the game.  And right now law and justice in Whatcom County consumes and controls over 65% of the Whatcom County budget (and that is the tip of the iceberg too). All other departments only get 35%.  No wonder so many other problems exist with the County parks, roads, health and human services, administration, planning, permits…etc. We are out of whack. 

So when the people who manage 65% of the money are out of integrity and can do whatever they want because they have the weaponry, the political power, the budget, the authority to control the courts, the arrests, the political debate, the appointments, the hearings and even the interpretation of the laws and the money taken in searches and seizures…wow, are we vulnerable. The charter review issues are minor in comparison. 

The only person higher than the County Executive on the organizational chart of Whatcom County is the citizens.  By vote. The voters pay the bills.  Period. The voters may not feel like it, but in fact they hold the power if they unite. 

And, fortunately, the voters can fire and hire the CEO every four years.  The CEO is the County Executive…and that is an elected position.  And, in this election, we also get to choose whether the County gets to extract more from the citizens in the form of a new jail tax - which also means more regulations and more penalties will or will not be assessed. So, we have a choice to get into unified action to stop the current County Executive branch from seizing a new earmarked tax to build and operate a bigger and unjustified jail.

Regardless of the allegations of the County - there is no Needs Assessment.  Even though we taxpayers paid $2 million dollars for it.  That, you can add to the price of the 40 acres on Labounty…for land that will also cost over $10 million dollars to mitigate from the wetlands.  The costs of false protection keep going up. 

So, truly this is an all citizens alert to get out the vote, get out your pen, get our your voice, get out your mind and your friends to learn about the importance of the jail tax to your freedom and your future.

Go to the Restorative Community Coalition and read the report I co-authored with Irene Morgan called “Stop Punishing Taxpayers, Start Rebuilding Community” to start learning how we, the people, can work together to begin taking back our community and rebuilding our economy through local jobs and mentoring and teamwork.  We must reverse our thinking about government, the economy and safety. 


Walter Haugen

Sep 19, 2015

Now might be a good time to mention the Deep State. Here is an article that defines it in Footnote 1. “The term “Deep State” was coined in Turkey and is said to be a system composed of high-level elements within the intelligence services, military, security, judiciary and organized crime.”

In the US and Britain, the Deep State is a nexus of people inside and outside of government that rules with law as well as violence. [Law being worthless of course unless you have the police and prisons to mete out the violence.] In Turkey and Mexico, you have the Deep State ruling with a more overt style of violence. Thus the difference between Mexico and the US is more along the lines of decentralized and personalized violence on a continuum. It is really a matter of scale, with the violence of the US government dwarfing ANYTHING the narco-cartels are doing. The US prison system does not behead people - they just torture them for decades. Which is worse?

As a social scientist, what is most interesting to me is that the Deep State is the state’s response to the rise of tribal and clan organization. It is not that tribes and clans are a devolution when the state begins to break up (as we see now in the US, Britain, Turkey, Mexico, Libya, Syria, etc). Clans and tribes have always been with us. You can see it in your neighbors’ family life, how people get jobs, stretch their resources, etc. The rise of the Deep State is the response to the underlying clans and tribes that allow more decentralization and, not coincidentally, allow resources to be spread more equitably. Since this equable distribution threatens the state when resources are scarce (as they are now!), the state must respond. The Deep State is that response. It is an organic phenomenon, not a conspiracy, because all the players think the same. [C’mon all you so-called “progressives!” How many of you actually question the existence of the state in ANY shape or fashion?]

The defining characteristic of the state, as Ellman Service said back in the 1950’s, is the monopoly on violence. Obviously then, the state has to quash anything that seeks to take some power back by violence. The people on the front line of this response are the police. Therefore, as more and more people seek to take some power back over their lives, the police will respond with violence. The police atrocities we see have their component of racism and sheer thuggery, but the main motivation is to preserve the state’s power. That is why they overreact. They feel threatened in the bones of their organization. Many police officers take criminal justice courses in the sociology department of colleges across the country, but I suspect they never question their sacrifice for the state.


Barbara Perry

Sep 20, 2015


On Thursday at the HVNA meeting, I asked Mayor Linville if she had read your NW Citizen Jail article, and tonight I asked that question of a couple of candidates talking about the jail.

No one but Joy admitted to having read your article and even Judge Garret commented about the “desperate need” for a new jail.  Have you got some responses?

Perhaps I was interpreting incorrectly, but Linville dissed the liberals: Johnson and Sweeney, and for wild, unproven and/or misinterpreted accusations.

My own curiosity makes me wonder why some of the empty old buildings in town like the Sehome theaters and others, are not being considered as a temporary jail for low level offenders until an accurate assessment were worked on..

Also, Do you or anyone think that Louwsy could or should be quilt of theft of county funds?


Tip Johnson

Sep 22, 2015

I have no opinion on anyone’s guilt.  Not my job.

We definitely need to improve our jail and already passed a tax for that.  They just didn’t do it.  More importantly we need jail reform, a subject that has been avoided par excellence. Law and Justice is now more than 3/5ths of the entire budget and the fastest growing part, even though crime is down and the jail population has long ago peaked despite their best efforts to keep it stuffed.

It is worth noting that the jail’s below-specification construction and the unapproved removal of a bearing wall in the basement may have contributed significantly to the crisis.  The underlying incompetence has never been revealed, but rather rewarded.  Worse, the circumstance is being exploited to justify an unprecedented budget heist. In the last ten years, Law and Justice has gained more than 30 employees while all other departments have lost at least twenty.  Do the math.  It is just a matter of time.  A lion is devouring the budget and we are about to vote on giving it carte blanche.

No one likes single issue campaigns but there is no point discussing other unfunded issues because discretionary programs are stranded if the sales tax passes and the prison state takes over the budget.

My experience is that beneficiaries never adopt of contrarian views and always obfuscate relevant evidence.  It’s a recurrent pattern.  Many subsidiary non-beneficiaries will simply follow suit.  Occasionally someone leaks something good.  Usually citizens have to dig and someone go out on a limb.  Authorities with oversight ignore complaints north of the Chuckanuts so successful stone-wallers of citizens often land good local jobs.

If anyone has any concern about misinterpretations I may have made, I urge them to address them in specific detail instead of general innuendo, and invite them to engage me personally or in any public forum.  No one has so far.


Doug Starcher

Sep 24, 2015

Here is the link to the needs assessment from the Sheriffs page. I am confident this has been de bunked. ironically one of the places is here Per Tip’s research document pages 206-207


Hue Beattie

Oct 15, 2015

Just got a slick mailer in favor of the “new jail”. It looks like it was paid for by Whatcom County Government. Ten years ago we ammended the charter to mail a voters guide that would contain pros and cons on the ballot issues. This is not. I think the public disclosure commission should be notified.

To comment, Log In or Register