Law & Justice

County Jail elevators operational, Facilities Management says

Sheriff's Office maintains elevators not safe
February 11, 2022 at 12:38 p.m.
Whatcom County's jail, adjacent to the courthouse in Bellingham, has been deemed substandard for decades. Officials are beginning to plan a new jail along with expanded social services to reduce incarceration rates.
Whatcom County's jail, adjacent to the courthouse in Bellingham, has been deemed substandard for decades. Officials are beginning to plan a new jail along with expanded social services to reduce incarceration rates. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

Staff Reporter

Elevators at the Whatcom County Jail have been under repair for the last three months, according to the Whatcom Sheriff's Office, which shuffled detainees and even arranged “virtual” jail visits after deeming the elevators irreparable.

But the agency charged with fixing them, Whatcom County Facilities Management, has been attending to the repair project and says they have the elevators up and operational.

The elevators have had intermittent problems throughout the last couple of weeks, but Facilities has been working to resume the main elevator’s operations, said Project and Operations Manager Rob Ney. 

The elevators were repaired last week by a technician with institutional knowledge about the jail’s dated infrastructure.

“These are older, vintage elevators and you need someone that’s got that older, vintage training,” Ney said. “We got it running within one to two hours.”

From a facilities standpoint, the elevators are in working order, though the sheriff’s office may not think so, Ney said.

Facilities has only determined temporary solutions, said Deb Slater, community programs coordinator for the sheriff’s office.

Besides diverting deputies, officers and detainees, the broken elevators have caused further inconvenience, slowing down jail functions such as moving detainees to medical clinics and court hearings, administering medications and moving kitchen supplies out from storage, Slater said.

For now, Ney says the elevators won’t need replacement unless they suffer catastrophic failure, which he agrees is a possibility due to the building’s age. The sheriff's office maintains the elevators must be reliably repaired or replaced.

“We have to make certain that the repairs that have been done so far are going to last,” Slater said. “We are not sure at this time when on-site visiting will resume.”

A couple of days ago, the elevators displayed a small operational issue, but it was quickly resolved, Ney said. 

So far, the repairs have cost “a few thousand dollars of extra overtime in (Facilities’) elevator contract,” Ney said, but the project has not been labeled a big-ticket item.

Replacing the elevators, however, is a large, expensive project, Slater said. The jail has a budget of over $1 million for routine maintenance matters, but because of the project’s urgency, the Whatcom County Facilities Department is working with the County Executive’s Office and the Whatcom County Council to secure funding to contract the elevator replacement or repairs.

The courthouse elevator underwent a repair similar to the one the jail elevators would need and the cost was $30,000, Ney said.

While the jail’s lobby is closed until further notice, about 20 eligible detainees have been relocated to the Work Center because of the elevator issue.

The Work Center was originally intended to hold minimum security detainees or those on work release once their cases were adjudicated. Currently, 81% of detainees are being held pre-conviction and the number of detainees booked on primary felony offenses has continually grown, Slater said. But the rate of case resolutions has slowed down, resulting in broadening eligibility parameters for detainees to be held at the Work Center, Slater noted.

Whatcom County officials recently had a meeting to discuss asking voters for funding for a new jail. At the Jan. 20 meeting Sheriff Bill Elfo said he has been dealing with a substandard jail since he took office in 2004.

While the county addresses issues with the main elevators, visits to detainees at the Whatcom County Jail will go virtual.

The jail's visitation vendor, Securus Technologies, is providing each detainee four 30-minute video calls per month free of charge through Securus tablets, according to a Whatcom County Sheriff's update online detailing the workaround visitation option.

During normal in-person visitation hours, detainees are allowed a one-hour visit per week on a “first-come, first-served basis,” Slater said.

While visitation is moved online, family and friends can purchase additional call time through Securus Technologies.

Though outside visitors can no longer meet detainees in person for the foreseeable future, visits from caregivers, nurses and other human-services personnel are scheduled to continue.

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