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The Whatcom County Jail: A Brief History


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The Whatcom County mega-jail proposal is one of the most expensive in the country. The jail could cost more than $150 million over 30 years with interest. After years of record inflation, we can’t afford higher sales tax in Whatcom County. The county is asking for 100% of our public safety tax capacity. This would lock all potential public safety, service, and treatment funds for 30 years into jail construction. This tax would take resources in the community to unnecessarily jail and harm people who could be better served by being home with their families or in public housing to support them getting back up on their feet. There is no limit to the capacity of this new jail, and the County Council has indicated that there could be future expansion, meaning the size could be anywhere from 400-1600+ beds. The estimated quote of $137 million was for a 440-bed facility. Based on the cost per bed, this would be one of the most expensive jails ever built in the United States. The cost comes out to $311,000 per bed in Ferndale vs. $120,000 in Skagit County. ​ Proposed services aren’t guaranteed; the jail won’t help people. Proposition 4 would fund the jail first and foremost, with services only coming years down the line after construction and only if the tax raises enough funds to cover the municipal bond and increased operational costs. There are demonstrated racial disparities in incarceration in Whatcom County but no plan to address them, only a plan to increase the number of people incarcerated. Jails should not be seen as sites of social service provision, they punish and harm people, depriving them of contact with family and loved ones and being able to work. Proponents of the new jail claim they want to provide mental health, drug rehabilitation, and other services, but those services can and should be available without incarceration and studies show people have better outcomes when they are not in a punitive setting. The jail proposal ignores the underlying problems of the opioid crisis and housing crisis, claiming to keep communities safe while incarcerating people who need real help. ​ The proposed megajail is unnecessary; most people in the jail are held pre-trial and have not been convicted of a crime. The majority of people in the jail (60-98%) are held pretrial – meaning they are being punished for crimes they haven’t been convicted of. Crime rates have been down in Whatcom County: 27% from 2015 to 2022. See page 22 of the progress report towards reducing the jail population conducted by researchers from Washington State University. Studies have shown that releasing people pretrial doesn’t hurt public safety. The current jail is only 40 years old – why haven’t they taken care of it? How can we trust they will take care of this one? A new jail is unnecessary, reducing the current jail population and diverting people from the jail will better serve the community. ​ Jails create a cycle of harm. The jail will exacerbate homelessness and poverty – 50% of people previously jailed reported to have lost their jobs and 30% reported to have lost their jobs due to being held pre-trial. Research shows that just a few days of pretrial detention can have detrimental effects on an individual’s employment, housing, financial stability, and family wellbeing. The U.S. has been on a jail construction boom for almost forty years, building “modern” jails and expanding old jails. Deaths in jails have only gone up. If proponents are looking for humane solutions to terrible living conditions, the data points away from jail expansion. Washington State has an incarceration rate of 455 per 100,000 people (including prisons, jails, immigration detention, and juvenile justice facilities), meaning that it locks up a higher percentage of its people than almost any democracy on earth.

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