Staff, inmates say it’s time for a new Whatcom County Jail

The current Whatcom County Jail is consistently packed beyond its designed capacity, with conditions that pose safety issues for guards and inmates, according to Sheriff Bill Elfo.

Elfo sat down with Bellingham City Council during a special meeting March 18 to discuss the need for a new county jail and request the city’s financial support.

“It is our responsibility to operate a jail in a safe and constitutional manner, and my belief is we’re falling very short of that right now,” Elfo said.

The current jail was built in 1983 at 311 Grand Ave., and opened in 1984. Originally built to house 148 people, then upgraded to house up to 212, the facility has held up to 315 people, said Lt. Caleb Erickson, who has worked in the jail and work center for 10 years.

In 2006, the county built a work center in the Irongate area to house up to 150 minimum-security inmates and take some pressure off the main jail.

Still, between the two locations, the jail’s current legal capacity is somewhere between 298 and 362 inmates, but the average daily population in 2014 was 403 people.

Inmates have broken out the windows in their cells onto the street below and picked away at the grout in their cinder block walls, creating small pass-throughs from cell to cell; sewer lines have backed up into the sheriff’s office; nearly every space – shower rooms, indoor recreation areas – has been used to house inmates at one time or another as the population has fluctuated well beyond capacity.

“We call that creative housing,” said Lt. Ernie Stach, who has worked at the jail for 25 years.

When the National Institute of Corrections evaluated the building, it was determined that if a fire or other emergency were to happen, such as an earthquake, the loss of life at the jail would be “catastrophic,” Elfo told the council. Though the building is largely cinder block, mortar and concrete, if mattresses, clothing and/or other items were set on fire, smoke could easily fill a room or floor of the building and suffocate those inside.

On any given day in 2014, roughly two-thirds of inmates in the jail had not yet been sentenced for a crime or were awaiting trial, according to statistics compiled by jail staff.

“We have a human rights issue, a liability issue, and it cannot go on,” Elfo said.

The crowding has caused staff to convert three of four rooms designed for recreation into dormitory-style housing for inmates or food storage.

“There are what we call ‘special populations’ that we house that push our limits,” Erickson said. “This ebb and flow system comes in where we constantly need to change things around to accommodate everyone as best as we can.”

Some of those who might require separate or special housing arrangements include people with medical issues, sex offenders, those with mental health issues, certain gang members or transgender persons.

That pushes people without special restrictions into crowded cell blocks or dorm-style rooms, where two dozen inmates might be housed, some in bunks, others in what jail staff call “boats,” hard plastic platforms that sit about a foot off the ground and serve as beds for inmates where no beds exist.

“You try to maintain the human dignity as much as you can, given the resources you have,” Stach said.

Because of that, inmates typically get an hour a week in the sole “outdoor” recreation area, a concrete room with high ceilings and two high mesh windows that are the only source of fresh air in the building, Erickson said.

Shilo Wright, who said she was in jail on six charges of delivery of a controlled substance, explained that she and the other female inmates in a dorm-style room try to work things out amongst themselves as best they can — giving lower bunks to the older women or those with health issues.

“We also try to clean the intake and outtake air vents a lot because they get dirty really fast,” Wright, 36, said, pointing out a vent in the middle of the ceiling, caked in dust. “We clean that every other week.”

The women said they help one another get lukewarm showers by having one person hold the flush on the toilet with their foot while the other person showers.

Jack Gunion, 29, has been in the jail for the last five months while his case makes its way through the courts. Court records state he’s charged with second-degree burglary for trying to break into the Ferndale Rite Aid.

“It’s dungeon-esque, it’s dark,” he said of the living conditions. “Recycled air. We really have no... little to none fresh air, it’s not clean,” Gunion said. “This is bad. I don’t see how people can live like this. I mean I know that we’re in here for crimes, but this is not, this is not right.”

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