Skagit County Sheriff’s deputies are settling in after about a week of free rein in the new Skagit County Community Justice Center.
Chief of Corrections Charlie Wend recently received the keys to the building from Lydig Construction and has been working with staff to get familiar with the new equipment.
With 400 beds, 282 cameras, a computer lab and a better-equipped medical center, the new jail represents a massive leap forward for the Skagit County Sheriff’s Office, which has been housing 200 inmates in a facility built for 83, Wend said.
At 100,000 square feet – about the size of the local Walmart store – it’s one of the largest buildings in Mount Vernon. And with a price tag of $48 million, it’s one of the more expensive projects on which the county has ever embarked.
“It’s a whole new spin on things,” Wend said. “How are we so lucky to have pulled this off?”
A definite upgrade
In the center of the seven detention pods is the new control tower, fitted with a dozen screens and two touchscreen monitors that are set up to control cameras, lights and water throughout the facility.
“The control room is like something out of Star Trek,” Wend said.
With the addition of classrooms and a computer lab, Wend said he’s hoping inmates can leave the jail with job skills.
He said he’s also adding an educational aspect to working in the justice center’s kitchen. Inmates who choose to work can earn a food handler’s permit, which Wend said he hopes will make them better candidates for jobs in restaurants.
Visitations will be done online via Skype, and inmates will be provided tablets that provide safety information, educational programming and movies.
Further, he said he’s had conversations with Worksource Skagit and Skagit Valley College to come into the justice center to work with inmates and perhaps get them enrolled in higher education upon their release.
“We’re trying to interrupt that cycle (of recidivism) any way we can,” Wend said.
Medical amenities are also greatly improved, Wend added, with more services, such as dental care, coming to the justice center.
“We’re a professional medical clinic at this point,” he said. “We’re very proud of this.”
Mental health staff will be brought into the medical wing where they will work directly with medical staff. Wend hopes that will improve communication and help provide comprehensive care to the 70 to 80 percent of inmates suffering from behavioral health issues.
One of the more controversial changes is a shift toward video visitations and away from face-to-face meetings between inmates and their vistors.
Visitations will be through the online program Skype, which Wend said will save the county money and enable long-distance video communication.
Video visitations will make it easier for families and friends to have a presence in the lives of inmates. And that, Wend said, will help reduce recidivism.
However, if the courts rule justice center staff must allow for face-to-face meetings, the justice center is set up to do that, Wend noted.
The justice center will have tablets available for inmates. They will provide jail safety information and educational programming and, as an incentive for good behavior, movies.
Wend said by offering education and improved medical care, inmates have a chance to leave jail better off than when they entered and hopefully that will keeping them from returning.
A long road
The completion of construction on the justice center and its upcoming opening mark the culmination of years of hard conversations between elected officials, county staff and the public.
As far back as the mid-1990s, officials in the sheriff’s office tried to start a conversation about expanding the Skagit County Jail, said former Chief of Corrections Gary Shand.
The answer the sheriff’s office got back, he said, was to work on being more efficient and to make due with what it had.
So Shand said the SCSO turned its attention to educating elected officials and the public about the need for additional space.
“The lack of a sufficient jail is a huge public safety and public health issue,” Shand said.
A lot of people who should have been inside were outside ... I think we’ll see the end of the book-and-release system.
Skagit County Commissioner Ken Dahlstedt
That process of educating spanned the tenure of six county commissioners, three sheriffs and three chiefs of corrections, County Commissioner Ken Dahlstedt said.
“A lot of people who should have been inside were outside,” he said about the yearslong shortage of space at the current jail.
In 2011 – two years before voters were asked to pass a sales tax increase to fund a new jail – Marc Estvold was assigned to quantify the need for a new jail.
In June 2012, after realizing he couldn’t get far without local decision-makers, Estvold helped form the Jail Coordinating Council and invited representatives from the county, its cities and towns, and the judiciary to participate.
Ultimately, the council decided against renovating the current jail or contracting with other jails and started looking for property for a new facility, Estvold said.
The current site, on Suzanne Lane in south Mount Vernon, was selected in April 2014 and construction began in the fall of 2015.
What lies ahead
Wend said there is still much to be decided about how many people will be kept in the facility and whether deputies will be sent on warrant sweeps.
Today, deputies do 10 to 15 bookings a day, and Wend said that could increase to about 20. However, Wend’s plan is to keep the justice center’s population at about 275 through most of 2018.
“If we had people out there doing warrant sweeps, we’d fill the place in a week,” Wend said. “We still have to be careful.”
Though the justice center has 400 beds, there are plans to expand to 800 when the need arises.
Wend said the sheriff’s office isn’t disclosing when inmates will be moved from the current jail to the justice center because of security concerns.
The justice center will host a ribbon-cutting at 2:30 p.m. July 11.
By then, the staff – including about 26 new corrections deputies – will have had more time to settle in.
“I don’t want someone to get hurt because we can’t respond correctly,” he said.
Tours of the new Skagit County Community Justice Center, 201 Suzanne Lane in Mount Vernon, will be offered after a ribbon-cutting at 2:30 p.m. July 11, and at 9 a.m. July 15.
Information is available at skagitcounty.net/Departments/Jail/newjailstatus.htm