Feedback regarding my request for an update on Whatcom County Jail renovations / Noisy Waters Northwest

Letter to councils on jail renovations

September 8, 2018  Dena Jensen

Yesterday, I received my first response to a September 6, 2018 email I sent to the Whatcom County Council requesting an update on renovations to our Whatcom County Jail. So far, other Council Members have yet to reply. This was my specific question: “Could each of you respond briefly with your understanding of where we are in terms of current plans for renovations and what the next steps are for further renovations?”

I don’t feel like this is a case where I need/want to share the exact letter and identity of the Council Member who replied to me. I don’t have clarity on every remark so I don’t want to say someone is saying something they didn’t mean, but I do want to share the general sense I got of their observations about where the County is, at this point, with plans for those renovations and next-steps for further renovations.

After reading this list of information, I urge people to reflect on ways the Whatcom County Council,  Planning and Development, Facilities Management, and the Executive, could be moving things forward more quickly than things are currently moving now, because according to the email I received, progress is being made, but it is going slow. These agencies should receive input regarding your suggestion and/or solutions.

We all know that currently workers and people who are incarcerated in the Whatcom County Jail are suffering inhumane conditions there. In my opinion, there are far too many people in that facility which has not been renovated for over 30 years to meet some of the building codes with which it is not currently in compliance.  One suggestion that was in the email I received is that people may want to express (and I would say this would be to our local elected officials) whether we have objections regarding the policy of sending  those people from Bellingham who are incarcerated pre-trial (vs. some post-conviction folks) to a facility in Yakima. Because these are people who are not convicted and probably, for the most part, should not even be held in jail at all, let alone one that is hours from their families, I personally do have objections to that policy.

I will put contact info for the County Council and others at the bottom of this post.

Here are some highlights regarding where things are currently at with jail renovations and possible next-steps from the email I received:

  1. The priorities of Executive Louws seem to be patching up the existing facility, for example: fixing the locks and key safety issues. Structural issues or the HVAC system are not in the current plans for repair. The Executive himself does not seem to have a long-term plan for renovations. 
  2. Meanwhile, the County Council hasn’t given the Executive direction about what   the long-term plan should be. Doing long-term repairs (structural and HVAC from what I understand) will reduce the jail capacity. For example, renovating the smoke evacuation system will create a need to take over the use of a number of the spaces that are currently used to house people who are incarcerated at the jail in order to to use those spaces for ventilation instead.
  3. There seems to be potential that the existing facility can be repurposed into something that lasts another 25-30 years at its current scale.  Possible priorities would be investing more in the Division St. work-release facility and investing more  in incarceration reduction efforts.  In this Council Member’s opinion, doing all of that or anything more than just plugging the leaks in the jail will take another ask of the voters.
  4. The facilities side of what was mentioned in #3 will take more capital money than is available for the short-term patches, but Council Members are making progress on funding the reduction efforts. It’s likely the Council will see a budget in the next couple weeks. There are Council Members committed to the seeing that the Task Force’s requests are funded. Those requests would be things such as reliable pre-trial risk assessment, better use of home monitoring, and capacity for drug court.
  5. Funding is also being sought for the operations of the new behavioral health crisis/triage facility as an alternative.  The capital side of this is funded, and construction will begin soon. This facility would have a capacity of 32 beds – 16 for acute detox and 16 for mental health stabilization – and it will serve the larger region.

Addresses to contact Bellingham, small city, and County Council Members, Mayors, and the County Executive:

County Council

Barbara Brenner — 

Barry Buchanan 

Rud Browne

Satpal Sidhu 

Todd Donovan

Tim Ballew II 

Tyler Byrd

County Executive

Jack Louws

Bellingham City Council 

Gene R. Knutson 

Pinky T. Vargas 

April Barker 

Michael W. Lilliquist 

Roxanne J. 

Terry Bornemann 

Daniel C. Hammill 

Mayor of Bellingham

Kelli Linville 

Ferndale City Council

Cathy Watson

Teresa Taylor 

Greg Hansen 

Rebecca Xczar 

Fred Kennedy 

Kate Hansen 

Keith Olson 

Mayor of Ferndale

Jon Mutchler

Lynden City Council 

Mayor of Lynden

Scott Korthuiss 

Nooksack City Council

Nooksack City Council 

Mayor of Nooksack

Mayor City of Nooksack

Mayor of Sumas

Mayor Bromley 

Blaine City Council

Steve Lawrenson (Mayor Pro-Tempore)

Bonnie Onion (Mayor)

Meg Olson

Charlie Hawkins

Mary Lou Steward 

Eric Davidson 

Alicia Rule


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