4. What about the conditions of the current jail facilities?
It is true that the current Whatcom County Jails need repairs however, because the downtown jail is only 40 years old and the Jail Work Center is less than 20 years old, that is largely an indication of a lack of proper maintenance for both facilities – even though the County secured funding for maintenance with the 2004 sales tax.
Renovate the current facilities, remove the black mold that has gone untreated, replace ceiling tiles, ensure all cells have working plumbing and toilets, and cease further attempts to build larger, newer facilities. The Whatcom County Council has frequently ruled out this strategy because the downtown location does not allow for “future expansion” – a clear indication that building a new facility is and always will be about locking up more of our community members.
In 2016, Whatcom County hired design2LAST, inc. to analyze the cost of renovating the existing jail and work center; they estimated that the cost to renovate the current building deficiencies would be $10.5 million, and an additional $32.4 million for a longer-term, 20-year renewal plan. They have not offered any reason why renovation hasn’t been pursued or why the extra $100 million they are asking for to construct a new mega-jail is necessary.
Crime has not gone up in any statistically significant way since booking restrictions have kept the Jails below capacity3, but the number of households experiencing homelessness in Whatcom County have increased by 33% between 2022 and 2023, and overdoses are up significantly with 93 known deaths last year and 72 so far this year. If the County seriously invested in permanent affordable housing, employment, SUD (Substance Use Disorder) services, and mental health services instead of a new, bigger jail we would be able to house, treat, and support our neighbors in a healthy, sustainable way.
Beyond the conditions of the jails, we should be focusing on reducing the population of our jails and we have been given very clear recommendations and strategies to do just that in the 2017 report from the Vera Institute of Justice that the Whatcom County Council commissioned. The report highlighted the need to decrease the disproportionate incarceration of BIPOC community members, release folks who are unnecessarily being held pre-trail, and move away from relying on financial bail.