Decrepitjail described as just short of “horrific”

Published on Thu, Oct 14, 2004 by eg Olson

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Decrepit jail described as just short of “horrific”

By Meg Olson

Blaine police chief Mike Haslip is joining other county law enforcement officials in asking voters to approve a new sales tax to build, maintain and run county jails. “If you don’t you’ll have what you’ve got now, and that is not good,” he said. What we have now, according to Haslip, is drunk drivers, petty thieves, bullies and vandals who don’t go to jail because there isn’t room, and who know it.
“All we can do is write him another ticket for him to laugh at and send him to find another car,” Haslip said of a reckless driver with a suspended license, no insurance and warrants outstanding for drunk driving stopped earlier this month by local police. “What we have now is a criminal justice system that is broken because of the bottleneck created by the inadequacies of the jail.”
Overcrowded jail means early releases

Wendy Jones is the county’s chief of corrections, in charge of running the jail in downtown Bellingham. The jail opened in 1983, she said, designed for 110 inmates and was quickly expanded to handle 148. “Our average daily population is now running at 253,” she said. “A month ago the peak was 269. At that point we have people on the floor, in holding cells, in shower rooms.”

Overcrowding in the jail is a safety risk for those who work or are incarcerated, Jones said. Violence between inmates increases. “It wreaks havoc,” she said. “They get jammed in here, they have no privacy and they irritate each other. Assaults go up.”

As the population in the jail climbs over 200, Jones starts to look for ways to ease the pressure – by releasing people early. “I basically take a stack of files over to a judge and say pick 10,” she said. “I’m asking a judge to overturn bail. There are obviously files I won’t put in that stack but you have drug dealers, burglars, forgers, domestic violence assailants. It used to be when we had to look for early releases we went for the DUI, but those days are long gone.”

The jail is the only detention facility in the county, where cities, the county, border agencies and state patrol send those accused of criminal activity pending trial. If a person is sentenced to more than 366 days in jail, they will serve that sentence in the state penitentiary. Otherwise they will serve that sentence in the county jail. Government agencies who use the jail pay $61 per inmate per day.

Booking limits prevent ‘horrific’ conditions
Jeffrey Schwartz, a consultant hired through the National Institute of Corrections (NIC) acknowledged the jail was overcrowded, but not “horribly overcrowded” and therefore did not have the “runaway violence, suicides, staff problems and other by-products of horrific overcrowding” found in some county jails in the country. In his report Schwartz gives credit for avoiding “horrific overcrowding” to a policy of limiting bookings, put in place in 1991 and tightened in 1998 and 2000.

“Basically if you’re not a domestic violence misdemeanor or a felony, you aren’t going to jail,” Jones said. Under the booking restrictions people who are contacted for drunk driving, hit and run, trespassing, theft, assault, vehicle prowl and other misdemeanors are given a citation and directed to appear in court. “The offender population has picked up on this and they’ll tell a police officer ‘hey, you can’t arrest me, you’ve got booking restrictions, the jail’s full.’ The only thing the officer can do is write a ticket and they know it,” Jones said.

While the booking cap and early releases have avoided “horrific overcrowding” it has led to policies that “go to the heart of the credibility and respect of the criminal justice system,” Schwartz found in his report, because it has led to a situation in which offenders, and especially repeat offenders, know there is no consequence for their actions. “The very fabric of the law itself is held in less regard by criminals and law-abiding citizens alike,” he wrote.

Many offenders given citations rather than being booked into jail don’t show up for their court date and warrants are issued for their arrest, but with no space in jail those warrants aren’t actively pursued. Schwartz reported that last year 1,732 of those warrants expired, effectively allowing those offenders to avoid any consequences of their actions, and denying the county and municipalities of a source of funding through fines. “I have about a quarter of a million dollars in warrants in a stack in a drawer,” Haslip acknowledged ruefully.

Failing infrastructure means health, security risks
The NIC report may not have found the jail horrific, but it did conclude that the county needs a new one, not only to deal with overcrowding and no room to book offenders, but with a poor design and failing infrastructure. Locks that malfunction, floods from leaks and breaking pipes, seismic instability and a fire suppression system that hasn’t worked for years and is too obsolete to be repaired the report found “shocking, particularly in a jail that’s understaffed and overcrowded.”

In the prison control booth Mark Reis and other prison staff members put in three hour shifts opening and closing doors and monitoring prison security with a hodgepodge of equipment, some of which works and some of which doesn’t. “You’ve got just about every decade of technology represented here,” Reis said. “Some of this stuff leaves me totally blind.” Flooding has severely damaged the building’s wiring, he said, which makes the whole control system vulnerable.

In the kitchen inmates serve up fish sticks, rice, salad and fresh bread for dinner, surrounded by stacked supplies. Carts block the entrance to the dish washing room. “This kitchen was designed for 400 meals a day,” Jones said. “They’re putting out around 1,500.” Jones said equipment was failing in all areas of the jail, some so obsolete staff were looking on Ebay for replacement parts. “You use a building this hard and it just gets beat up,” she said.

New tax would build new jail
Whatcom County Sheriff Bill Elfo said the county was today spending a substantial amount trying to keep the current jail running that he would rather see put into a new facility. “We’re putting millions of good dollars after bad just to keep the place together,” he said.
Elfo is one of the most vocal proponents of Proposition 1 on the November ballot, which will ask voters to approve an additional 1/10 of one percent in sales tax. Elfo said the sales tax approach was the fairest as it targets visitors and residents alike, and a third of the county’s jail population comes from outside Whatcom County.
Washington sales tax is currently 6.5 percent and Whatcom County collects an additional 1.1 percent, for a 7.6 base rate in the county. Cities can also charge sales tax and Blaine collects 0.6 percent, for a total rate in Blaine of 8.2 percent, which would rise to 8.3 percent if the proposition is adopted, which translates to an additional ten cents per hundred dollars spent.

The new jail facilities sales tax would generate $2 million in 2005, an amount that would increase with growth in subsequent years. The county’s plan is to build a $5.9 million interim jail facility next year on Division Street off Hannegan Road in Bellingham. The minimum security facility is being planned to house 155 inmates, most of whom will be involved in work release programs. Jones said 68 percent of inmates serving time in the county do so through work release or similar jail alternatives, including home detention. The county houses up to 50 inmates in a facility operated by SSP, a private company. Some leave for work in the morning, others work on county crews and are joined by out-of-custody work crew members. The new tax would also pay for additional staff at both the new facility and the main jail, and increased operating costs.

A new $45 million 600 bed jail, expandable to 1,000 would be planned for five to seven years later, along with a new Alternative Corrections Center at $1.8 million. “Any unneeded space can easily be rented to other counties, the state and the federal government,” Elfo said. Blaine currently sends some of its inmates to the county prison in Yakima, which rents beds. “Because they have room,” Haslip said. Elfo stressed that in the long-term ideas such as shipping inmates to other counties or “tent-city” prisons, would end up costing the county more than building their own facility to meet county needs.

More than just a jail problem
Jones was asked if the county needed six times more jail beds because the crime rate was six times worse than when the current facility was designed 20 years ago. “Interestingly, incarceration rates tend to run independently of crime rates,” she answered. “It’s probably more an increase in population.” State changes in sentencing limits have also moved more and more cases to local jurisdictions, increasing the burden on courts, prosecutors and public defenders.

Since 1997, booking limits have kept down the average number of days inmates pre-trial or sentenced to misdemeanors spend in jail, and sentenced felony days are low as any felons sentenced to more than a year go to state prison. However, the average monthly bed-day use for pretrial felons has more than doubled since 1997. “Four years ago the average stay here was 12 days, now it’s 24,” Jones said. “What’s driving that is pre-trial felons. Felonies just take longer.” The rate of felony filings went up 25 percent in 2001-2002, she added, putting an even greater burden on the courts, and by association on the county jail.

County prosecutor David McEachran acknowledged that his department was part of the bottleneck, but he said the jail was the most pressing problem to address. “The jail is the first problem. That is huge,” he said, adding he was working with the county executive on how to secure more resources for his office and the public defenders. “Where we really need some help is on the felony side,” he said. “If we had just one more attorney it would really help move some of these cases.” Public expectations are shaped by television crime dramas like CSI, which show a reality miles away from what his team has to work with, McEachran added. “Without a trial date it can take four months to get DNA analysis,” he said, adding the county sends crime lab and ballistics analysis to Marysville or Seattle, lacking any local facilities.
Haslip said the jail facilities tax was only the first of a number of measures needed to get the county’s criminal justice system back on track. For example, a $1 million federally funded data integration project will tackle poor communication among county law enforcement agencies. “Right now there can be five data entry points from booking to court,” he complained. However, he said that without someplace to put offenders there was little need to book them or prosecute them. “The jail. That’s critical.”