Jail Reform: Music to My Ears

By On
• In Bellingham,

The life of a lowly editorialist is such that we often don’t have access to the resources needed to redress the grievances we detail. Such is the case with the jail. However, I am encouraged by recent actions of the County Council, reminiscent of the Do-Re-Me lyrics of Julie Andrews in the Sound of Music - “Let´s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.”

I believe the administrative troika of prosecutor, sheriff and executive has failed to gain the public's trust in addressing this problem. The Council is correct in looking for greater integrity in the platform from which such improvements must be launched. It will without doubt be tedious and difficult, but it is the only way to ensure taxpayers don’t get fleeced in the process.

The excellent mid-February edition of the Cascadia Weekly’s Gristle continues teasing an issue many pounced upon in the run up to last November elections, when a seriously flawed jail finance plan was rejected by voters.

The Gristle refers to “doubts” shared by several jurisdictional councils over the “proposed plan to construct the jail”. It’s true there are doubts aplenty, but there is no plan for a jail. Nothing has been agreed, much less approved. There are schematic sketches of what the administration wants, made famous by their infamous jail mailer (large pdf), but not an actual plan.

The proponents' effort began years ago, pushing first for over 2,000 beds, now finally whittled away to around 500 as rational folk pruned dense brush obscuring the facts, desperate to arrive at a more reasonable estimate of need. But as with the plan, there is also still no valid needs assessment. The problem has been variously evaluated, but existing efforts have been recognized as seriously deficient. Probably the County’s most qualified and unbiased consultant comprehensively outlined the deficiencies of prior attempts, offered guidance as to how to proceed and cautioned against runaway costs inherent in the features proponents keep pushing. His findings were shelved and ignored (“Whatcom County Initial Jail Planning Assistance Report & Recommendations”, Jay Farbstein & Associates, Inc.).

The Restorative CommUnity Coalition identified fifteen ways the prosecutor and sheriff keep the jail packed (pp.10-11). Records reveal that Whatcom County bookings increased while jail proponents emphasized an overcrowding crisis, despite a radical statewide decline. Experts now explain how prisons make the mental health crisis worse, how the “epidemic” of prison overcrowding indicates a “malfunctioning justice system”, how prisons exacerbate rather that solve social ills (“Ageing, Crime and Society”, Azrini Wahidin, Maureen Cain), how reducing incarceration reduces crime, how jailing, especially the young, ruins lives and increases crime, how prisons help “professionalize crime” by providing criminals with better criminal skills, and how higher security accommodations can increase recidivism. The list goes on. Prison reform is a hot topic nationwide, but not in Whatcom County where every administrative effort continues to expand the shadowy business of community misery. What can we learn from the lessons in Sweden and Norway?

Just google “the business of mass incarceration” to gain a glimpse into this dark side of our criminal justice system. The premise of corporate profit seems to be the heart of the administrative thrust for a new, big, flat, rural jail. Even though the County’s own mental health liaison and referenced diversion toolkit have advised that such services have no place in the jail, the administration continues to insist that is where they will be. Though jurisdictions have demonstrated cost reductions through decarceration with diversionary services and preventative programs, the Cascade Weekly reports the sheriff to have rebuked efforts by decision-makers to enunciate such policies, calling their assumptions “inaccurate” while jockeying for continued control of the process. Even though National Institute of Corrections and Department of Justice guidance on planning and siting jail facilities advise they should be built next to the courthouse when land is available, the administration long ago rejected that alternative with a facile and erroneous white paper, citing exactly the same documents, but ignoring the strident warning that remote facilities lead to ongoing operational cost increases that easily outstrip construction savings. Even though incarceration terminates most prisoner health benefits and shifts costs to an already overburdened county budget, the administration still complains that the jail lacks “medical space”, as if eager to contract with outside vendors for services diversion would automatically preserve. There are many more misery profit centers that still need further review: The so-called “food” service, the extravagantly expensive private phone service, the monopoly on reading materials, the practice of booking new prisoners before releasing those freed to keep counts high, and especially the executive’s bum rush of the council to purchase a toxic property in a pollution hotspot at record prices with little time for adequate review.

The sheriff’s reported indignation at the councils “lack of transparency” and his feeling of having been “locked out of a process” are at least a bit ironic. The administrative troika, acting as their own lead agency, intentionally gamed the jail review(s) to include only their big, flat, rural jail - or nothing at all. Citizen comments promoting alternatives, supported by experience and the current literature, were met with a stone wall and the oft repeated, “Comment noted. This comment is outside the scope of the E.I.S. (Environmental Impact Statement)”. Over the years, reviews were commenced and committees formed only to halt suddenly, change direction, start over and spin around in a bewildering tarpit of bureaucracy seemingly designed to instill fatigue and frustration, and to outlast the best intentions of sincere citizen concerns. As a consequence the project, ultimately dependent on voters, went nowhere but backwards.

The Gristle reports the council as stating, “We believe decisions must be based on data and evidence, and that crucial information has been lacking.” Having tried and failed to acquire crucial information, I wholeheartedly support this. On 9/21/2015 I submitted request # 2015-178 for “documents related to structural reports, repair or renovation cost estimates, and costs and descriptions of remedial work that has been done to keep (the jail) going”. On 9/24/2015 the county replied, “The project…has not been closed out and all of the records are still in the possession of the contractor. We cannot provide a time estimate of when the County will have access to said records.” On 10/26/2015 the County emailed me with the subject line, “Closing Request”, to which I objected. Finally, on 12/2/2015 the County wrote to say, “Attached are the only records found by Whatcom County Facilities Management in response to your request. I will now be closing request 2015-178.” This response included only a one page record of four bolts installed at less than a 35º angle. If this is all the administration has done to maintain and improve a facility they insist is deteriorating, overcrowded and unsafe, but which we must rely upon for the foreseeable future, then I rest my case for Council intervention. Perhaps the Council has the clout to learn more than I could.

Leaving these decisions to the administration is no longer acceptable. Diversionary and preventative programs and facilities must be prioritized. Medical needs must be assessed and provided. The assumption that court appearances, consultation with counsel and family check-ins can be accomplished remotely via video must be reexamined. The staff and motor pool increases needed to accommodate a remote jail must be accounted. Repairs, improvement and expansion of the existing jail must be studied - along with why on earth it is in such bad shape after only 30 years. Central jail locations must be reasserted for evaluation and probably integrated with needed courthouse repairs. The prospect of later hearing that it makes sense to move the courthouse to the rural jail site, establishing a new county seat in Ferndale, is not an eventuality that should be stumbled into without the conscious consideration of duly elected policy makers.

Above all, we should remember that the vast majority of local inmates originate from our families, friends and neighbors. Shouldn’t we consider a framework that helps them improve not wreck their lives? A few days or weeks of studying the literature will provide a wealth of new ideas, but implementing them will take a long time and a lot of money. Let’s make sure and do something right that stands the test of time and meets our community’s needs.

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

Joy Gilfilen

Feb 15, 2016

Solutions abound in the “Stop Punishing Taxpayers, Start Rebuilding Community” Report to Taxpayers published on August 25, 2015 by the Restorative Community Coalition.  As President of the Coalition and co-author of this report with Irene Morgan, I can say that many years and thousands of hours of smart local volunteer work has gone into the research and development of these recommendations.

This is a 31 page, solid content report detailing dozens of restorative economics and business alternatives that other cities and organizations across the nation are already implementing. It contains an overview of the jail industry issues, a roadmap to implementation, specific recommendations and leads.  The citations provide resources to virtually all the leading edge information needed to replace the jail industry in Whatcom County with a restorative justice based approach that would generate hundreds of new jobs, build new free enterprise businesses, and reduce the taxes that people in Whatcom County are paying.

Whatcom County could be a leader in jail reform and economic transformation.  Instead, the Executive Branch continues to stonewall.  And the Incarceration Prevention and Reduction Task Force is still not working with a viable needs assessment.  What’s up with that?

Read the report for yourself.  http://www.restorativecommunity.com/stop-punishing-taxpayers-start-rebuilding-community-report/

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Dick Conoboy

Feb 19, 2016

Given the apparent mis-feasance, mal-feasance and non-feasance that have characterized the jail, et. al. over the last several decades, why are we to accept these newest estimates of $28 and/or $34 million to fix the problems with the current edifice?  Or are we really looking at amounts much higher that will “revealed” over time. Quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (Juvenal, Satires)

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