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What will replace Whatcom County’s failed jail?

Proposed remedies seek balance between safety, support

Two people under blankets sleep on green pads in a cemented jail sell. A plastic tub and orange slippers are sprawled across the cement floor.
Two inmates sleep in their cell, including one on a mat on the floor, at the Whatcom County Jail in November 2022. The downtown jail, built with a capacity of 148 inmates, routinely holds about 190. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
By Ralph Schwartz Local Government Reporter

Editor’s Note: Beyond Bars: The future of justice in Whatcom County is a special report that explores the county’s controversial effort to build a new jail. Voters on recent jail bond measures made it clear they won’t accept a new jail without better social services for the people who wind up behind bars. In this story, we look at conditions inside the existing jail, gleaned from a tour CDN and KMRE staffers took in November 2022. We also look at the ups and downs (mostly downs) of jail measures placed on the ballot over the past 26 years.

Ask just about anyone who knows what it’s like inside Whatcom County’s jail, and they’ll tell you it’s more than inadequate. It’s inhumane.

A former inmate, “Tony,” only spent a few days total in the jail, but it was enough for him to get a sense of the place. 

“The psychological stress is just unbearable,” Tony said of his experience in lockup. “I can tell from one day of being there.”

Tony isn’t the former inmate’s real name. He agreed to share his story if he could maintain his privacy.

“They [inmates] all need to have some kind of love, they all need to be shown some kind of hope for whatever reason,” he said. “There just needs to be humanity in there.”

Bill Elfo, who as county sheriff has been responsible for running the jail over the past two decades, told Cascadia Daily News and KMRE Community Radio the facility has been unacceptable since before he came into office, when he served as Blaine’s police chief.

“The jail has been a nightmare,” Elfo said. “I noticed it when I was the police chief, and it continues to be an important need in our community that does not seem to get addressed.”

The jail, built in the early 1980s to house 148 inmates, now typically holds more than 180. Recreational areas and even shower rooms have been converted into living quarters. Until recently, three inmates were often confined to a cell built for one person, up to 23 hours a day. 

The elevators, and the washers and dryers, routinely break down. Chunks of what appears to be black mold fall from the ceiling onto inmates washing dishes in the kitchen. Sewer pipes built to accommodate fewer people frequently back up.

Five metal bunkbeds crowd a dark room in a jail.
Around a dozen inmates in the Whatcom County Jail live and sleep in a windowless room that was once an indoor recreation space. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

The jail has nowhere to put people in a mental health crisis except for two padded cells deputies colloquially refer to as “drunk tanks.”

The Whatcom County Council asked voters twice to approve bonds that would have paid for the construction of a new jail on a 40-acre site in Ferndale. Voters narrowly defeated a proposal for a $125 million, 521-bed jail in 2015. The council went back to voters with a slightly smaller, slightly cheaper proposal in 2017. Up against an organized “no” campaign by Whatcom Democrats, the second jail measure lost by 17 percentage points.

County leaders are preparing another jail measure for this November’s election, but political headwinds against the proposal remain strong. Even so, proponents of a new jail and detractors alike agree on something besides the fact that the jail is inhumane: The county can’t afford to fail on the ballot a third time.

“We do want a successful path to a new jail,” said Andrew Reding, chair of the Whatcom Democrats, who said his party remains skeptical of the jail planning effort. 

“The consequences of failure are serious here.”

An inmate wearing a khaki uniform and hair net does dishes in a jail kitchen.
An inmate sanitizes a food cart in the jail kitchen. A moldy substance is visible on the walls and ceiling. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Lack of services

Inmates with mental illness or substance use disorder aren’t getting enough help in Whatcom County Jail, officials say.

One problem is space. Areas that might be used to treat behavioral health problems are filled with inmate bunks instead.

The jail also is short-staffed. Out of 89 corrections officer positions, 10 are vacant as of Feb. 23, according to the sheriff’s office.

A corrections officer wearing a black uniform and beanie talks to coworkers through an open metal drawer in a cement wall at the jail.
A corrections officer communicates with other officers through a drawer. Several officers are posted inside the room, on the other side of panes of one-way glass. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)
A blue door with "288" painted on it is next to a glass window in a cement wall at the jail.
The jail has one small, cramped medical center, where health care providers work with inmates. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Organizations outside the jail such as Opportunity Council are poised to help inmates but simply can’t get in to do their work, said David Goldman, who offers educational programs to inmates through Whatcom Community College.

“We already have the agencies in the community, we just don’t have the staff or the space for them to come in and do the thing they do, or even to telecommute in and do the thing they do,” Goldman said.

“With either a new (jail) structure or a newly designed structure, we can really be considering space and availability for the resources that we have to support people in the jail,” added Goldman, who is a member of a jail planning group called the Stakeholder Advisory Committee (SAC). 

Like Goldman, Chief Deputy Public Defender Maialisa Vanyo sees firsthand the limited help available to her clients in the jail.

“What care there is in the jail is … woefully inadequate,” said Vanyo, another SAC member. “They don’t have enough staff to meet the need.”

A woman with blonde hair wearing a blue suit and glasses poses for a photo.
Whatcom County public defender Maialisa Vanyo said her clients often wait weeks for needed medications. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Inmates who are represented by Vanyo or her legal team often wait six to eight weeks to see a healthcare provider who can prescribe them needed medication.

“That’s a very, very long time for someone who needs an antipsychotic to be waiting in a really harsh environment,” Vanyo said.

The public defender added that her clients aren’t able to visit with family members inside the jail.

“It’s really important to see family and be able to build those relationships to go back into the community,” Vanyo said.

Chief Corrections Deputy Wendy Jones said in-person family visits have been suspended as a safety precaution, “due to the erratic performance of the downtown jail elevators.” Inmates can visit family remotely, through jail-issued tablets, Jones said.

The jail has one contractor whose job is to help people return to the community after their release. Inmates often lose their jobs, their medical insurance and their homes while in lockup — if they had a home to begin with.

A man's hand reaches for elevator buttons in the jail.
Corrections Lt. Caleb Erickson reaches for the elevator buttons. The elevator, the only routine means of transportation between the floors of the jail, regularly breaks down. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

At a town hall meeting on jail planning in November, Lindsey Clark, the jail’s reentry specialist, said more than one person is needed to do her work. (For two years during the pandemic, she said, the jail had no reentry specialists.) The facility also needs more than the two mental health professionals who work there now, she said.

“I’m really the only one there that is trying to set inmates up with mental health services, and substance use services and housing when they get out,” said Clark, who is not a county employee but works for Lifeline Connections. “We don’t have enough room for mental health professionals, and we don’t have enough room for more reentry specialists.”

Even with enough space and money to hire more mental health professionals, they are often hard to find. The state is dealing with a workforce shortage in this field.

Community safety

The space shortage also limits which suspected criminals the police bring to the jail. 

“We’re only booking people now for certain very serious felony offenses,” Sheriff Elfo said.

At a SAC meeting in December, Elfo told committee members the jail’s booking restrictions are contributing to legitimate safety concerns in the community. 

“People have actually been victimized, and they see their offenders … out of jail in quick order or not even booked,” Elfo said. “At one point, we were not even able to book people for residential burglary because there was no room at the jail.”

A man with a mustache and glasses poses for a photo with a sheriff star in the background.
Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo said the jail has been “a nightmare.” (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Concerns over rising crime in Whatcom County have led some members of the community to prioritize more jail beds over behavioral health services.

“We need to have a safe jail for people to be housed in, to deal with crime, because right now Whatcom County is out of control,” Misty Flowers said at the November town hall. Flowers ran for Whatcom County Council in 2021, with conservative support.

Progressives, on the other hand, want a more deliberate approach to jail planning. They say the SAC’s work, which concluded in late January, was misguided from its start one year ago.

A large majority of SAC members approved a needs assessment on Jan. 26, outlining what the 38-member committee believed a new jail should include — everything from increased access to mental health services to a more racially diverse jail staff. The SAC made no recommendations about where to site the jail, or exactly how big it should be.

The county council approved the report in February.

“I felt a little bit blindsided by the whole process going in,” said Brooke Eolande, a SAC member who voted against the needs assessment. The vote was 25–3 in favor.

“I thought we’d be discussing facility needs in general,” Eolande said, suggesting a broader range of services to include behavioral health care. “But it seemed that very quickly, right off the bat, it was agreed upon that we needed a new jail.”

“I also don’t necessarily feel like we should be focusing on more services in jail,” Eolande added. “We should be focusing on getting people services out of jail.”

A jail hallway includes a cement floor, white and brown walls, and green doors and windows.
Cells line the third-floor hallway of the jail. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Reding, the Whatcom Democrats chair, agreed.

“We can’t look at a jail outside of the whole criminal justice system,” Reding said. “We know there are tremendous flaws in the justice system in Whatcom County.” 

He quoted a statistic: Incarceration rates tripled in the county, from 1970 to 2014. (The county incarceration rate declined 32%, however, from 2014 to 2019.)

“We are the most incarcerated nation on the planet,” Reding said, “and that’s just flat-out unacceptable.”

Any solution envisioned by the likes of Eolande and Reding would be highly complex. They admitted it would involve shifts in community beliefs and a unified effort among disparate agencies that don’t like to be told what to do. 

Metal handcuffs and red locks hand on a wall.
Handcuffs and locks hang inside the Whatcom County Jail. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Sheriff Elfo countered that Whatcom County needs a new jail now, not after broader social problems are solved.

“The issue of having a safe, humane and constitutional jail should not be confused with mass incarceration or the need for treatment outside the jail,” Elfo said.

“We need a safe environment and we need an adequate environment, to carry on the important responsibilities we have here.”

The Whatcom County Jail was obsolete soon after it opened, officials said. Part two of Beyond Bars explains more about the two failed levies intended to replace the jail — and how that experience guides what’s likely to be a third.

A previous version of this story misstated the date of the jail tour. The story was updated to reflect this change at 3:59 p.m. March 14. Cascadia Daily News regrets the error.

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