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Whatcom County Jail Proposal Too Big

March 2011

Cover Story

Whatcom County Jail Proposal Too Big

by Lisa McShane

Lisa McShane is an artist and public policy analyst who lives in Bellingham’s York Neighborhood. She worked for 10 years at Conservation Northwest protecting our state trust lands with a focus on the forested lands of Lake Whatcom, and then worked as Governor Gregoire’s statewide Field Director in 2008. Lisa has volunteered for her community for more than 20 years in such areas as Girl Scouts, non-profit boards and political campaigns. She is on the board of the Opportunity Council and is a member of the Right Size Jail Coalition.

On Feb. 3, the Whatcom County council held a public meeting regarding the new jail proposal. The meeting, held in county council chambers, was attended with an overflow crowd of about 325. Nearly everyone who spoke at the meeting did so in favor of building a new jail. There was also overwhelming agreement on another aspect: we don’t want, nor can we afford, Whatcom County’s current jail plan.

The current jail proposal calls for a large, extravagant complex that would be built in three phases over the next 40 years. Phase 1 would open in 2015 at a cost of $150 million. The jail would have 844 beds and would require around 174 people to run it in addition to the other buildings in the plan. To fill 844 beds, we would need to double our incarceration rate. By Phase 3 we would have 2,450 beds. Like the 844 beds, this number is unrelated to our population growth. It adds for projected growth and then triples the rate at which we lock people up.


For most of the last decade, Whatcom County has been planning for this new jail. In 2004, we voted to tax our purchases one tenth of one percent to pay for the new jail. The county stated that roughly $5 million would go to an interim jail and $46.6 million to a new jail. The sales tax brings in $3 million annually yet has been siphoned off for other uses for years. The money is gone.

In 2008, while the U.S. and world economies fell into a deep recession, Whatcom County and its consultant released their Master Plan for a jail. It had been $41 million. In 2008, the cost had ballooned to a stunning $150 million.

At the public meeting held Feb. 3, Whatcom County officials said they would like to bring the size of the new jail down to 600 beds (this was to the confusion of everyone involved). Unfortunately, that figure remains both much bigger than we need and still too expensive. Eliminating 244 beds drops the total project cost by only $12.7 million. We can’t pay $137 million either.

County Wish List

The problem with the big jail is that it’s not just a big jail. It’s a very long, costly list of county wishes waddling along behind the one thing we’ve agreed we need: a new jail.

The property alone adds an unneeded $9 million to $12 million to the price tag. For reasons known only to some county officials, the county has decided it needs 72 acres in a rural neighborhood off of Slater Road. The property has no power lines, sewer lines, water lines or a serviceable road. Bringing those in – if the law allows them to do so – will cost $5.5 million if there are no cost overruns. The wetlands are extensive and the required mitigation for those will cost $3.5 million.

There are many, many suitable parcels of land that aren’t swampy and that have infrastructure and a road already in place. Right off the bat, we could save $9 million by going with a different piece of land. There are even suitable pieces of land owned by Whatcom County! Using one of those would save a whopping $12 million. At a minimum, we need to find a more affordable property and preferably one we already own so we can immediately cut costs by $9 million to $12 million.

How Big is Too Big?

In addition to the high cost of using an unsuitable property, the plan includes the following dreams: a $16 million power plant, a sheriff’s headquarters of $16 million and $7 million for public facilities. We need a much more complete explanation of those expenditures and we need them soon. It appears to be a long wish list that hearkens back to an era of big jails, bloated government and ballooning budgets. Those days are gone and outside of the courthouse, no one believes they’re coming back.

As of press time (Feb. 21), the county’s statement of how it will pay to build and operate this $150 million project is: “Among the unresolved issues are how to fund construction and operation of the project. Those details will be resolved during the design phase of the project.”*

That’s not good enough.

Where’s the Money?

This high cost, the missing sales tax monies, the unrealistic property selection and the pork masquerading as portions of a new jail threaten our ability to get a new jail. Let me be clear: Our jail is dangerous for the people who work there and for the people housed in the jail (see accompanying photos). We must have a new jail. Not moving forward is not responsible. Let me also be clear about this: Pushing forward a plan we can’t afford and buying unsuitable land will not get us that new jail.

Whatcom County needs to withdraw the current Master Plan and its associated Environmental Impact Statement and figure this out quickly. We need a new, sensible approach that results in a new, affordable jail.

We can make quick progress by following the path of counties across Washington state and the United States that have successfully pulled together to reduce the rate at which they lock people up. The PEW Center on the States report, “Local Jails: Working to Reduce Populations and Costs,” Nov. 18, 2010, cites Spokane as a place that expedited plea agreements and implemented new alternative sentencing approaches. Spokane reduced its jail population, on average, by 36 percent from 2008 to 2010. If Spokane can do it, we can do it – the same laws apply.

Jail for Sale

The editorial “Here’s hoping county pulls off planned jail sale” in the Yakima Herald-Republic on Jan. 26, 2011, starts off with: “Psssst. Wanna buy a used jail?” Yakima, the only county in the state with jail capacity similar to what Whatcom County has planned, has two empty jails for sale. This is no longer a growth industry. If we are going to get a new jail, we must follow their lead and fully invest in alternatives to jail; we can’t afford to do otherwise.

Whatcom County’s current incarceration rate is higher than the state average. We lock up 0.21 percent of our population, while Washington’s average is 0.18 percent and dropping. If we took our high rate of incarceration and simply added for projected population growth, we would need 489 beds by the year 2025. Furthermore, if we added a buffer so there was flexibility in our system, 500 beds should be plenty.

If we reduced our incarceration rate like everyone else is doing, we’d need an even smaller jail. But if we went with a 600-bed jail (the latest number the county has put forward), that puts us at a 0.31 percent lock-up rate, much higher than the state average and bigger and more costly than we need. A 600-bed jail would require us either to increase sharply the rate at which we lock people up (which we can’t afford to do) or it would force us to pay to maintain an empty building (a strange way to spend limited money.)

Our degraded jail is only 28 years old. If it had been sitting around vacant with state-of-the-art technology from 1983, would we want it today? It makes no sense to build space today that we won’t need for decades when our household and county budgets are strained.

Alternatives to Jail

Like other counties, we must pull together our courts, mental health services, social services, veterans’ services, the sheriff’s department and interested citizens and put together a sensible plan to invest in alternatives to jail so that we reduce our rate of incarceration. We’d be safer. We’d spend less money. We can’t afford not to do this.

As we move forward, step one is making alternatives to jail part of our plan and then funding them so they work. They will reduce our overall costs. Step two is figuring out exactly how much we can afford and then getting solid ideas on the table of how we’re going to pay to build and operate the new jail.

All of this must happen with the knowledge that government budgets are not returning to pre-2008 levels for a very long time, if ever. We can’t count on the state or federal government to pay our way. That’s why reducing our need – through alternatives – and figuring out what we can afford, by honestly looking at our income options, are the most important first steps. Just like any homeowner, we should start with what we can afford, peel away the extras and build a jail that’s the right size, at the right cost, in the right place and with the right alternatives to jail. §

Revise and Right-Size!
by Joy Gilfilen

I’m a parent, coach, businesswoman and president of the Whatcom County Re-entry Coalition. Our jail situation is where complex local, state and national problems directly confront public safety, social responsibility, quality of life and your money.

Technology, red tape, costs of living are accelerating. Employees are overworked; unemployment rises. We’ve undermined our small business foundation. Taxpayers are stretched, stressed, foreclosed, and bankrupt.

Who pays the $30,000 a year bill for one inmate? It takes 12 $24,000 per year wage earners.

In 2009, one in 26 people was imprisoned, on probation or on parole. It’s a systemic self-destructive cycle. When cutbacks take out social services, rehabilitation and reentry programs, recidivism increases. Read “Race to Incarcerate” by Marc Mauer and “Restorative Justice: Contemporary Themes and Practice” by Jim Consedine and Helen Bowen.

Let’s reverse the cycle by taking these steps:

1. Fund a “right-sized” jail. Solve the immediate problem.

2. ASAP stop losses, save money. Redirect non-violent offenders into lower cost, higher return-on-investment restorative justice models. Unite private, public and non-profit organizations to address the REAL problem: Eighty percent of our jail inmates are illiterate, mentally ill, addicted. Jail, fines, court time doesn’t work. What does work is recovery and rehabilitation, functional literacy, life and job re-skilling. Restore productive citizens.

3. Revise! Let’s innovate with a community enterprise center to pioneer, mentor, train, and build self-reliance. Let’s use collaborative teamwork as we “right-size” our community. Bellingham is considered one of the ten “happiest cities.”1 We lead in green business and we’re second for supporting independent entrepreneurs. Let’s restore honor and build a bridge to the future by discovering and funding innovative initiatives that are regenerative and life enhancing. We can do this.


1Sunset, Feb. 2011 issue: “The West’s best places to live.”

Joy Gilfilen is the president of the Whatcom County Re-Entry Coalition, which aims to provide an efficient and supportive network of assistance for citizens re-entering the community after incarceration, for those who are homeless and others at-risk in Whatcom County. Learn more about the organization and how to get involved:

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