Guest Commentaries

Digging deeper on Whatcom jail questions

Let's take a broader look to 'build for the future'
April 21, 2023 at 5:00 a.m.
A cell in the Whatcom County jail leads to individual rooms. The jail lacks natural light and space for inmates to roam.
A cell in the Whatcom County jail leads to individual rooms. The jail lacks natural light and space for inmates to roam. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)

By Michele Menzies, Guest Writer

The last time we were asked to vote on plans for a new jail, I didn't know much about it and wasn't sure how to vote. Your recent series about new jail plans was excellent. It was balanced, interesting coverage of a wide range of issues and options. I looked forward to the next installment each week.

I had never heard of the LEAD and GRACE programs, which sound like important interventions. The streaming video guided tour of the jail is also well worth viewing. It clearly shows how dilapidated the current jail is and how desperately a new one is needed. All this helps one become better informed. Hopefully, we will all become better prepared to vote wisely when the new jail plan is next presented on our ballots.

I hope Cascadia Daily News will continue to explore this topic. Some aspects I would like to see addressed in greater detail are the following:

The Nashville, Tennessee urgent care center and behavioral care center next door to the jail there. Do these have mental health professionals on staff — psych nurses, psychiatrists, addiction specialists? Do they treat serious mental illness patients there (e.g. schizophrenics) or do they divert those people to a local forensic psychiatry hospital? How long is the program that arrested people go through there? What are the rates of recidivism after program completion? What follow-up programs have they developed? 

Mayor Seth Fleetwood said that 75% of homeless people in Bellingham self-describe as having a mental illness and/or drug/alcohol addiction (when he spoke at the Bellingham City Club mayoral candidate forum). It seems that the prison population includes many people who also fit that description. If those problems could be more effectively resolved, then hopefully the “in and out of jail” repetitive cycle could be reduced. More psychiatric beds are desperately needed — could the “St. Joe’s South” building be converted into a forensic psychiatric hospital, linked with the new jail?

photo  An inmate drains a vat of pasta in the kitchen of the Whatcom County Jail. The crowded kitchen provides hundreds of meals each day, and mold grows on the walls. (Hailey Hoffman/Cascadia Daily News)  

The new Skagit County Jail: I would like to see more details of this. How should we interpret the usage data there? In the guest commentary by Andrew Reding, he states that “incarceration rose by more than a third while arrests remained steady.” He cited this as proof that there must be limits on jail capacity to reduce incarceration and that a small new jail should be chosen.

However, I wonder if it would be more accurate to interpret the Skagit incarceration increase as reflecting the natural adjustment from a state of unmet need in the old overcrowded, small jail to actually being able to keep those in jail who needed to be there. Does the new increase really reflect the realistic percentage of arrests that show effective policing? I was interested to see that letter writer Matteo Tamburini was also struck by the Skagit example. Maybe other readers are also interested in learning more about the Skagit example. 

Comparisons to other relevant models would also be very interesting. What about the new pilot project in Victoria, British Columbia, to address homeless mental health/addiction problems? Or different approaches to treating drug addiction and forensic psychiatry in B.C./Canada? Any need for increased jail space/new jail models in B.C.? Special jail programs for Indigenous inmates? Culturally sensitive programs to help Indigenous people successfully reintegrate into society after release from jail — in B.C. or the U.S.? Do such programs reduce recidivism? What are the results of these interventions?

In the commentary by Reding, I didn't find the comparison of incarceration rates between Whatcom County and Russia, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Myanmar at all useful. Those countries routinely underreport and misrepresent public data whenever the regimes seek to reduce negative publicity. For example, Russia dramatically underreported COVID-19 infections/deaths; and apparently is also busy hiding the true extent of Russian casualties in the Ukraine war. How can you trust their data?

It's also ludicrous to compare a population the size of Russia (143 million) with that the size of Whatcom County (roughly 230,000). Not to mention dramatically different criminal justice systems! It would be much more useful to compare Whatcom County incarceration rates with other similar counties (similar in demographics, jail systems and population size); or at least American states or Canadian provinces. 

I think that the 40-acre Ferndale site proposed for the new jail would be clearly the best choice — it would be able to accommodate extra facilities such as an urgent care center and behavioral care center next to a new jail. Maybe a forensic psychiatry hospital too, where those with serious mental illnesses (e.g. schizophrenia) could be effectively treated. Perhaps it could also include some classrooms for inmates to gain education and job skills (programs run in collaboration with local colleges).

Hopefully, that would provide increased skills to enable inmates to successfully reintegrate into society upon release. Maybe a traditional community longhouse space for Native American healing practices? Do those traditional interventions produce good results?

The Ferndale site is large enough to allow for future expansion, too. Our population has increased rapidly over the past 10 years, and that trend is likely to continue. Why invest huge sums in building a small jail on one of the other small proposed sites, when it likely would be inadequate as soon as it was completed?

We should build for the future.

Michele Menzies is retired. She previously lived in New York and Vancouver, British Columbia. Menzies is concerned about the rising crime in Bellingham and hopes that steps taken to deal with it can include effective means to resolve underlying causative problems. 

Have a news tip? Email or Call/Text 360-922-3092



Register for email newsletters

* indicates required

Latest Stories

Bells open season with 2-1 win over Edmonton
Bellingham clinches victory with game-ending play at the plate

Seattle shut out for the 4th time as Rangers beat M's 2-0
Castillo limited Rangers to 1 run over 7 innings

Feds, tribes responding to mass baby salmon death in Skagit
Hundreds of dead baby chum discovered at McGlinn Island Jetty

Fifth graders are off to the races
Bellingham students compete at annual elementary school track meet

Whatcom County eyes sales tax for new jail
Council has 2 months to approve ballot measure