Whatcom County and cities scrambling to find alternative location for jail inmates

The Yakima County Department of Corrections will not accept inmates from Whatcom County next year, forcing city agencies and law enforcement to find an alternative location.

Whatcom County and its cities have contracted to send inmates to Yakima for several years. The contracts were negotiated as a way to reduce overcrowding in the downtown Whatcom County Jail, as well as to provide a place for inmates to be sent when major repairs slated for the facility begin.

Whatcom and Yakima county contracts, memos and letters detail the change.

The current contracts were valid through Dec. 31, 2019, and would automatically renew annually through 2022. The contracts outlined details for Yakima’s care, handling and transport of Whatcom inmates.

But on Aug. 15, Yakima County Department of Corrections Director Ed Campbell sent a one-page letter stating the inmate housing agreement for all Whatcom County and its cities was terminated, effective Dec. 31. The letter was sent to Whatcom’s executive, the mayors of Sumas, Lynden, Ferndale, Everson, Bellingham and Blaine’s city manager.

Campbell’s letter stated Yakima was “grateful” for Whatcom’s business and the ability to help house its inmates, but gave no reason for the termination.

“There’s been no reason given, they have not communicated that yet, but we’re eager to find out,” Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo said. “Yakima reached out and expressed a desire to have a meeting about whether there’s a solution modifying or extending the contract in a way that works for them.”

On Thursday, Bellingham Police Chief David Doll and City Attorney Peter Ruffato met with Campbell to tour the Yakima jail. Doll said they also met with staff and learned about the programs and services offered there.

Campbell said many of Yakima’s concerns were addressed at the meeting, and he intends to move forward with contract renegotiations.

Campbell said he expects to meet with all the jurisdictions over the next several weeks. He said it was too early to determine whether all the jurisdictions will continue to contract with Yakima, or if there will be new agreements.

“The decision to terminate was based on several factors. One factor being related to the time, distance and cost of transportation. Other factors will be discussed with the individual agencies,” Campbell said.

Out of county

While Whatcom County’s contract was valid since 2017, the county didn’t begin sending inmates to Yakima until August 2018. Bellingham’s contract has been valid since 2016 and it is the largest jurisdiction sending inmates to Yakima, according to Darlene Peterson, Bellingham municipal court administrator. Bellingham is also the only jurisdiction to send pre-trial inmates to Yakima, Peterson said.

Since 2018, more than 16,000 bed days have been used in Yakima for all the Whatcom agencies, according to jail data. A bed day is considered to be any portion of a 24-hour period that someone might spend in jail.

Elfo said the county is interested in seeing if there’s a way to renegotiate the contract, but acknowledged the hardship of sending inmates out of the county.

“Our No. 1 priority is safety — the safety of the public, the safety of staff and the safety of those we’re holding in custody,” Elfo said. “When you’re sending people out of town to jails, you’re separating them from their support system, families and attorneys. But the alternative is to keep them in overcrowded and very dangerous conditions.”

Elfo said the county, as well as some of the other cities, are also interested in negotiating a contract with the South Correctional Entity, known as SCORE, in Des Moines as an alternative to sending inmates to Yakima. The county does not currently have a contract with SCORE, Elfo said.

Housing an inmate in Yakima costs roughly from $58 to $63 a day, while SCORE costs are between $128 to $184, Elfo said. However, the cost to house an inmate with special medical needs at SCORE can be upwards of $450.

It currently costs $129 per day to house someone in the Whatcom County Jail, Elfo said.

“We’re going to try to find the best solution for the community, for law enforcement, for the public and for the inmates, and that’s the most fiscally responsible. We don’t have all the options yet to make that determination, but we’re assessing all those criteria,” Elfo said.

Some of the cities, such as Bellingham, have held current contracts with SCORE as a place to send inmates who Yakima wouldn’t accept, according to Peterson of the municipal court.

“Termination of the contract with Yakima will affect the entire county and we are working together with the Whatcom County Jail and all of the small cities to try to determine the best course of action,” Peterson said.

Discussions to renegotiate a contract are ongoing, but have been productive, Bellingham’s Chief Doll said, and he’s hopeful they’ll have a continued contract with Yakima. Doll said Bellingham’s contract with SCORE remains current, and the city intends to use both, but primarily Yakima.

Reporter Denver Pratt joined The Bellingham Herald in 2017 and covers courts and criminal and social justice. She has worked in Montana, Florida and Virginia.