Recent jail planning may call forth a sense of déjà vu for longtime Whatcom County residents, and with good reason.
The talking points that have dominated public discussion since this spring – overcrowding in the jail, a call for jail alternatives and diversion programs, asking voters to increase local sales tax to pay for a new facility and for public safety needs – are far from new, echoing discussions that have happened since at least the late 1970s.
In some ways, the current state of the Whatcom County Jail mirrors issues that led to its construction 30 years ago.
The facility is overcrowded, with inmates sometimes stuck on cots on the floor and sardined into rooms once meant to be used for recreation.
In 1980, when Whatcom County officials were working on plans for the current jail, which would replace the then-aging 1949 county lockup on the sixth floor of the County Courthouse, inmates in the jail complained about inhumane conditions and overcrowding.
“During peak periods, inmates have been housed on thin mattresses inside the jail’s day-room, a large cell the size of an average racquetball court,” reads an article in The Bellingham Herald on April 20, 1980. “Eight-man cells have housed as many as 10 men at times.”
Adding to the overcrowding was Bellingham’s decision to close its 26-person jail in January 1981, as well as stricter sentencing guidelines.
The state Jail Commission, which paid for the current jail, ruled at that time the 1949-built facility was too small to handle its supposed 92-prisoner capacity.
“Basically this jail is unconstitutional,” then-Chief Corrections Officer Ray Gordon said. “It doesn’t meet the state and federal requirements for square feet per inmate. There is also inadequate kitchen space, the officer working areas are antiquated and there is no exercise facility as required by state law.”
Now, in 2015, Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo has expressed his concern about making sure the existing jail is constitutional.
“As Sheriff, I have a legal and moral obligation to operate the jail in a safe, constitutional and humane manner,” Elfo wrote in a June 14 guest editorial in The Bellingham Herald. “The result of not replacing the main jail or incurring more years of delay will require investing millions more to stabilize and remodel the structurally flawed and inadequate facility.”
Before the jail even opened its doors in 1984, it didn’t appear hopes were high the current jail would fix the issues of the previous jail.
In a May 22, 1983, article in The Bellingham Herald, then-Whatcom County Superior Court Judge Marshall Forrest said the jail would be like a freeway: “It’ll fill up as soon as it’s built.”
In another article the same day, Gordon echoed that sentiment.
“The minute we open the door the potential for overcrowding exists,” Gordon said of the three-story, $8.4 million facility.
They were right.
Later remodeling bumped the number of beds from 148 up to more than 200, but those filled up as well. Jail alternatives such as work release and electronic home monitoring made a small dent in the population, but for years the facility turned away those suspected of less-serious crimes in order to have space for those accused of felonies.
Inmates have been asked to sleep eight in a room built for two, according to sheriff’s staff, and nearly every recreational space has been converted to storage or sleeping dormitories, which means inmates currently get about one hour per week in the lone remaining recreation room.
Frequent concerns have been voiced about integrating diversion programs and alternatives into plans for a new jail. Back in 1984, when the jail had just opened, protestors dressed in black-and-white prisoner costumes and chained themselves to the new building. They were objecting to what they perceived to be a lack of rehabilitation opportunities nationwide for jail inmates, The Bellingham Herald reported on Nov. 27 that year.
One of the protestors, Scott Renfro, told a reporter the jail didn’t offer any hope: “Institutions should be designed to help people get over the problems that caused them to do the lawbreaking.”
Currently, groups such as the Restorative Community Coalition and the North Sound Mental Health Administration have specifically called on the county to commit to programs ranging from alternatives to incarceration to mental health, alcohol or drug treatment in lieu of time behind bars.
One of the sticking points for members of Bellingham City Council and for Bellingham Mayor Kelli Linville, has been the fact that diversion programs are not specifically laid out in a jail-use agreement that the county’s six small cities and the County Council have agreed to.
Linville and Whatcom County Executive Jack Louws have differed over how a new $97 million facility should be funded, but last week the County Council voted to put a 0.2 percent sales tax increase (20 cents per $100 purchase) on the ballot this November.
It won’t be the first time Whatcom voters will have been asked to pass a corrections tax.
In November 1997, county voters were asked to approve two separate 0.1 percent sales tax increases — one, an advisory vote to the County Council, would have paid for criminal justice needs that was to be divided up to the county and cities based on population; the other was to pay for jail operations and alternative programs.
Both measures failed with roughly 58 percent of voters rejecting them.
In 2004, voters were asked to pass a 0.1 percent sales tax increase to help pay for a new jail, and 62 percent of voters approved it.