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Yakima approves taking Bellingham inmates

An inmate in one of the cells at the Whatcom County Jail on March 26, 2015, in Bellingham. The jail was built in 1983 and was expanded to hold 212 inmates. It has held more than 300 inmates at a time, but some inmates will be sent elsewhere in 2016 as the county reduces the jail population.
An inmate in one of the cells at the Whatcom County Jail on March 26, 2015, in Bellingham. The jail was built in 1983 and was expanded to hold 212 inmates. It has held more than 300 inmates at a time, but some inmates will be sent elsewhere in 2016 as the county reduces the jail population. pdwyer@bhamherald.com

Jail bed rentals continue to improve for Yakima County’s Department of Corrections as county commissioners this week approved a contract to house up to 20 inmates from Bellingham.

Bellingham has a contract with the Whatcom County Jail to house inmates, but space there is running short. Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo has pledged to reduce the jail population because of crowded conditions.

The number of inmates from Bellingham to be housed in Yakima has yet to be decided but is expected to be about 15 to 20, Yakima County Department of Corrections Director Ed Campbell said Monday.

“This is going to be something that we are going to work on with Bellingham and Whatcom County to alleviate the inmate population issues there,” he said.

The Bellingham inmates will be housed at Yakima County’s main jail downtown. Although the contract isn’t large enough to utilize the mostly idle county jail on Pacific Avenue, it’s a step in the right direction to eventually put that facility back to full use, Commissioner Kevin Bouchey said.

That jail – built solely to house inmates under contract from other communities – was closed at the end of 2010 when the county lost several contracts worth millions of dollars as other jails were brought on line elsewhere in the state. Meanwhile, the debt left over from building that facility remains.

But as demand for jail beds increases across the state, Yakima County is finding itself back in a lucrative jail-bed rental market.

“Clearly our outreach and the effort we’ve made particularly with Ed Campbell are paying off,” Bouchey said.

Although Bellingham inmates won’t be housed at the Pacific Avenue jail, that facility will be put to some use in March when suspects undergoing mental health treatment will begin being housed in one pod under a state contract in partnership with Central Washington Comprehensive Mental Health.

Campbell said he’s working on a federal contract that possibly could open a second pod at the 288-bed jail on Pacific Avenue, and is also in talks with other west-side communities to house their inmates under contract.

Fully utilizing the Pacific Avenue jail means covering its construction debt without continually straining other county government revenue streams.

“We’ve been actively, aggressively out trying to get contracts to get that jail fully utilized,” Campbell said.

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