Another Jail Fail?
Wednesday, February 12, 2020
ANOTHER JAIL FAIL?: Good news: In a welcome action this week, Whatcom County Council authorized an assessment of the county’s public health, safety,and justice facility needs—long the missing piece of a more comprehensive understanding of how these various programs serve the county’s behavioral health and criminal justice policy response. Bad news: The needs assessment is likely a precursor to the county propping another patchwork jail tax proposal on the November ballot, the third attempt.
Third time’s the charm? Or three strikes, you’re out?
As Deputy Administrator Tyler Schroeder detailed, “Whatcom County recognizes the need for a new jail facility to provide a safer, more secure and healthier environment for those who work, visit or are incarcerated…. Additionally,” he added, “the county seeks to better understand the behavioral health needs within the jail and throughout the broader community. Understanding the near- and long-term physical and programmatic needs of the county’s justice facility will assist policymakers in decisions regarding future funding for programs and facilities. The needs assessment will analyze existing behavioral heath programs and identify gaps in funding and programs offered.”
The needs assessment will be performed by the architectural design and engineering design firm Hellmuth, Obata and Kassabaum (HOK), which tips the hand that a new brick-and-mortar jail is indeed the intended destination of this half-million-dollar study.
“Phase one and phase two of this contract really is for a deliverable by June for a needs assessment to answer the question about a possible public safety facility, as well as what’s needed in our behavioral health facilities to be additive to what is needed and where that goes,” Schroeder admitted to Council when the contract was introduced in January.
The target date of June would feed directly into discussions that have to happen before a jail facilities tax can be placed on the November ballot. It is once again a hasty and “conclusions first, evidence later” approach to the jail issue. The timetable presupposes County Council will have already made up their minds about needs before the final assessment report is published in October (phase three).
While the scope of work is outlined, $600K seems high and a June target date for completion suggests the study data will not be extensive or exhaustive.
County policymakers admit that a critical element of the needs assessment is reaching out to a broader coalition of community stakeholders in order to build awareness about the study, and to develop champions in the community to support the final recommendations. Council authorized a stakeholder advisory committee of 24 voting members from local law enforcement, city and tribal governments, behavioral health service providers and at least one person with lived experience with the criminal justice system.
It’s a pity, then, that Council has shown such reluctance to assign Joy Gilfilen to the new jail stakeholders advisory committee subset of the Public Health, Safety and Justice Facility Needs Assessment. Gilfilen applied for the position—after she campaigned for the office of Whatcom County Sheriff last fall, almost entirely as a bully pulpit on issues of restorative justice and alternatives to jail.
She is certainly a skeptic on the issue of a new jail, but she received 24,000 votes—or about 30 percent of the total cast. Which suggests she is not alone in her skepticism.
One of the excellent ideas Gilfilen proposed in her campaign last fall was to move the bulk of Sheriff’s operations to the underutilized Whatcom Unified Emergency Coordination Center near the airport. The center was built in the frenzied heyday of the Department of Homeland Security for use as a federal, state and local coordination center for the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver. Homeland Security lost interest in the facility shortly afterward, but the hard infrastructure remains in place. The repurposing would sever the twin needs of a new jail and a new Sheriff’s office, and allow each to be considered in isolation from the other.
“This,” Gilfilen said, “will improve call response times, and assist with coordination of crisis management and disaster planning. It will also free up space in the jail, making room for much needed renovations, expanded mental health services, and start reducing trauma to staff, inmates and their families.”
Frankly, the operations needs of the Sheriff are largely what drove the decision to site the jail at a remote location on a large parcel off LaBounty Road near Ferndale. The expanse of property in turn feeds public anxiety about the size and function the jail. The county has retained the property; however, it has become fruit of the poisonous tree, and all that descends from it is tainted with mistrust around past tax proposals—no voter can fully trust the jail tax so long as that benighted industrial scrapyard remains the only location in the portfolio of county options.
Creative approaches that will make the needs assessment a more honest and open process, and less of a fait accompli that will translate into another failed jail tax initiative.
“For the last four to five decades, pretty much all we’ve done in this country is warehouse people,” Jeff Bradley admitted to Council last month. Bradley is director of HOK’s Justice division. “You end up getting the results that we have around the country. About ten years ago, we began a push in the United States for a more progressive, restorative justice design,” he said.
The push resulted in a more open pursuit for new methods and opportunities to dispense better and lasting social justice. It suggests a more open-minded, open-ended approach to the county’s needs assessment, one that goes beyond shelf paper that circularly reasons the preordained size and location of another jail proposal.