An inmate sits in a room meant for one that now holds three. Nearby, a layer of mold clings to the community shower ceilings and above kitchen air vents. A once-used classroom is now a makeshift courtroom, and a storage closet now serves as the main jail library.
As the Whatcom County jail sits in near disrepair and the failure of two previous ballot initiatives hangs in the air, community members, government officials and incarcerated individuals agree that change is necessary.
The jail was built to house 148 inmates when it opened in 1984. Its kitchens made 500 meals a day. Today’s jail population fluctuates daily between 185 and 200 individuals, and the kitchen serves more than 1,000 meals.
The jail’s current services for individuals with mental health and substance use disorders are also under considerable strain, according to Lindsey Clark, the current reentry specialist for the jail.
“We don’t have enough room for mental health professionals, and we don’t have enough room for more reentry specialists,” Clark said, adding that over 60% of current inmates have a severe mental illness and about the same percentage have a substance use disorder.
Clark spoke at a town hall listening session in November, during which there was a general consensus that Whatcom County needs a new jail. But opinions among attendees on the nuances of how big the new jail should be — and what programs and services should be available in the jail and surrounding community — varied widely.
The last two ballot measures failed because voters disagreed on funding a newer, bigger jail without first funding programs that worked to address mental health and substance use concerns. Proposed locations for new jail sites like the one in Ferndale were considered too far away from needed services and from the courthouse in downtown Bellingham.
Big jail, small jail, necessary services
“We have a choice to either build a large jail and put all the services inside a large facility as a corporate entity, or we can choose to build a small jail, and put massive services out in the community,” said Joy Gilfilen, president of the Restorative Community Coalition.
Gilfilen spoke at a community listening session to the problem of mass incarceration in the United States and her belief that a small jail and larger health services would benefit the community.
“What I have found,” she said, “is that it is a better return on investment to taxpayers if you do small facilities. Put the services out in the community.”
Others in the audience disagreed, arguing that a larger jail would mean more accountability for, and deterrence of, criminal activity.
The listening session was just a piece of the larger puzzle being put together by the Stakeholder Advisory Committee (SAC) for the Justice Project: a conglomerate of 38 volunteer citizens, community health organizers and others with experience in the justice system.
The group, put together by the Whatcom County Council, has met weekly since the beginning of 2022 to develop a needs assessment for incarceration operations in the community. In addition to the listening session, a public survey was sent in mid-November that received nearly 2,000 responses. Respondents had varying degrees of agreement with statements such as “I feel safe in my community” and “I trust that I will be treated fairly by Whatcom County’s criminal legal system.” Community members were also asked what resources they believe are needed to increase community safety.
A similar survey was also given to jail inmates in August 2022. In the 100 surveys that were completed, respondents marked which services they were receiving as well as those they wished they were receiving in jail.
Over half of the inmate respondents wanted more access to mental health services while in jail, and just under half said the same for drug and alcohol treatment.
“I don’t get how jail is about rehabilitation if we don’t have these services. Lacking these critical things will cause more crime,” wrote one anonymous respondent.
Over 60% of respondents agree that a new jail needs to be built; over 70% agree that the new jail needs to be bigger than the current one.
The SAC has also enlisted the help of the Vida Agency to specifically gather responses from traditionally underrepresented communities, including Indigenous and Latinos groups. The minority- and woman-owned agency is based in Edmonds and works to refocus the narrative on those who are typically left out of the conversation, according to their website.
Diversion versus incarceration
Two programs are aimed at reducing incarceration in the county: Ground-level Response and Coordinated Engagement (GRACE) and Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD).
These programs support frequent users of emergency medical services, law enforcement, the hospital and the jail. There is room for up to 100 participants in each program. A case manager works with each client to decrease reliance on emergency services and to build connections to services that provide long-term solutions.
“These are complex issues and we need to have really complex solutions. We need to be willing to fund them and as a community prioritize them,” said Malora Christensen, who oversees the programs.
Over three-fourths of participants in each program have mental health or substance use disorders or are living without secure housing. Many are also in jail. These individuals often remain in the program for several years before case managers feel confident in their client’s stability to graduate them from the program. Clients sometimes re-enroll in the program or drop out altogether.
Although participation in these programs is highly encouraged and can, in some cases, take the place of serving jail time for low-level offenders, they are not mandatory, Christensen said.
The Whatcom County jail holds not only high numbers of individuals with mental health and substance use disorders, but also disproportionately holds people of color.
Inequitable population of color
The most current data available jail shows that just under 20% of the prison population identified as Black or Indigenous in 2020, whereas in that same year, the total population of Black and Indigenous people in Whatcom County accounted for just under 4%. This disproportionate jail population correlates with a national trend in which every race and ethnicity is overrepresented in prisons, except for Whites and Asians.
Christensen said that the national LEAD program was founded specifically to address the disproportionate number of arrests of people of color.
County prosecuting attorney Eric Richey said the LEAD program reduces racial disparities at the front end of the system by diverting some charges from jail to intervention. In Whatcom County, the program attempts to collect race and ethnicity data and to share that data across departments.
Christensen also places an emphasis on hiring staff who have lived experience in the incarceration system or with mental health and substance use disorders.
“Often some of that lived experience with systems and law enforcement disproportionately is people of color,” Christensen said.
The LEAD program also works with individuals with mental health and substance use disorders in the jail and partners with several community health providers in other counties. Staff also work with the mental health court and the public defender’s office to ensure clients are getting the support they need.
“Care coordination is really the name of the game,” Christensen said.
The Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office recently began a co-responder pilot program that pairs mental health specialists with sheriff’s behavioral health deputies to respond to calls. [Read about a similar program in Skagit County: “Skagit sheriff/social-worker partnership is a game-changer in mental health calls,” Salish Current, Feb. 4, 2022.] The jail also provides medication-assisted treatment to over 100 individuals with opioid use disorders daily. They also routinely detox individuals with other forms of substance use disorders, according to Wendy Jones, Corrections Bureau chief for the Whatcom County Sheriff’s Office.
The Sheriff’s Office has requested funding to hire another mental health professional to work within the jail, as well as two more reentry specialists. The jail and health department will be co-funding a social worker for individuals with combinations of illnesses, according to Jones, who also emphasized that inmates sometimes refuse to recognize that they have a mental health or substance use disorder, and are therefore unwilling to receive the needed treatment.
The issue remains to decide what incarceration and community care will look like in Whatcom County in the future, especially for those with mental health or substance use disorders.
“Everyone in our community is hoping that we can tackle these issues,” Christensen said.
A vote of the people
Whatcom County officials have been asking voters for a new jail since 2015. But voters have struck down the ballot measure twice, citing a need for funding for programs that keep folks out of jail in the first place before building a new facility.
Stephen Gockley, a member of the SAC, believes that the two recent previous initiatives failed because government officials weren’t listening to voter concerns. “A lot of the complaints about the prior ballot initiatives were ‘Hey! You didn’t ask us what we wanted!’ so we’re trying to avoid that,” Gockley said.
The hope, according to Gockley, is that the knowledge and data collection provided by the SAC will work to prove to the public that, this time around, a ballot initiative will take into consideration the needs of everyone involved.
The work of the SAC will inform a comprehensive needs assessment which will be given to the Whatcom County Council early next year. The council will then create a ballot initiative in 2023 that will include funding for a new jail and other needed programs and services.
Although the council has no obligation to take every committee recommendation into consideration, Gockley is optimistic that their needs assessment will be carefully considered.
— Reported by Riley Weeks
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