Posted by: sweeneyblog | June 20, 2012

Bill Elfo takes another swing at Jail-zilla

Sheriff Bill Elfo

Most of you might remember last year, there was a whole big community battle over the size of our new jail. Bill Elfo had badgered Pete Kremen into supporting a proposed jail that was 844 beds, a big jump up from our modest 300 beds we have now. I wrote a big long letter to Pete Kremen, trying to straighten him out and after my letter, and let’s be honest, a big community meeting where over 300 people showed up to show their opposition to this jail monstrosity, Pete Kremen pulled his support from the facility.

Since then, the County council approved a “Jail Task Force” examined what we need, and it came up with a whole series of recommendations aimed at getting the size down to a much more manageable, affordable and appropriate size.  But Elfo has turned around and formed a citizens group to ram through the over-sized jail that he wants. It is called “Build a Safe Jail Now”. Made up of committee members from Elfo’s re-election campaign, the supposed citizen group seems to devote most of their energy to fighting straw arguments; i.e. getting into a twist about the layout of the jail or arguing that opponents of Jail-zilla are trying to delay the process. The group has been lobbying the county council and the county executive to greenlight a jail that has 600-750 beds. The problem is that is WAY too many beds and WAY too much money. Take a look at this chart:

  New Jail In 2015 2025 2035
County Population* 211,880 241,138 271,142
Beds needed if we jail 0.2% – average rate of incarceration here and elsewhere 424 482 542
Plus a safety factor 10% 466 530 596
Plus a 20% safety factor – this is the right size jail! 509 578 650
The size of the new jail as proposed by Sheriff Elfo’s committee 750 750 750
# of empty jail beds 341 172 100
Cost to build those empty jail beds (does not include the cost to maintain empty jail space or to service the debt.) Average cost of $80,000 per bed. $27 million $13.76 million $8 million

*Updated to reflect Washington OFM 5/2012 median forecast. These are lower than previous forecasts.

As you can clearly see, their proposed facility is way out of synch with common sense. With the community hurting for dollars, do we build a smaller facility that we can expand if necessary or do we blow all of our tax dollars on something so out of proportion, it guts our local government?

Not only that, but South King County (SCORE), Kitsap and Thurston County have all built  jails recently. Take a look at their numbers:

County or City # of beds Population served Notes
SCORE 822 340,000 Officials state this will serve them for 20 years.
Kitsap 510 248,300 Officials state that this will suffice for quite awhile
Thurston 389 252,400 They build a new jail but it sits empty at a cost of $500,000 per year. They recently hired a consultant to help them decide what to do

If Whatcom County were to follow the same ratio as SCORE, our jail should be 486 beds
If Whatcom County were to follow the same ratio as Kitsap County, our jail should be 406 beds

Finally, there is the issue of who is funding this community group. I already have seen a large truck with their sign going around, and the website is professionally built, however I am having trouble locating any financial information for this group. Now Bill Elfo had $10,000 leftover in his re-election campaign account, however transfering those funds to a community lobbying group like this would be illegal (see the PDC regulations here), so I’m sure that isn’t the case. I have calls out for quotes to the Build a Safe Jail now group to get some answers to these questions and more and will update this post as necessary.



  1. Nice article, and I am pleased to see someone is keeping tabs on this issue. Certainly we need a new jail, but this supersized jail never made any sense to me, and should fly in the face of the conservative fiscal views of our new County Exec. Having the jail geographically separated from the County Courthouse- in some plans it seems by a significant distance, also makes little sense. This will greatly increase travel costs, and decrease the efficiency of an already stressed court system. I hope this is “just” an empire-building effort (which can be derailed with some good sense), but one does wonder if there are other interests (for-profit jail outfits) that are behind this excess capacity. Other aspects that could be looked at are the continuing trends to de-fund the various alternate courts (drug court, etc)- really supporting these programs would be a far better, and far more humane, way to reduce demand for space in our county jail. However, it seems that these programs are destined to be torn apart in a tug of war between county agencies.

  2. During a public meeting, Ken Mann asked the consultant hired by Elfo if he thought that a horizontal facility was cheaper/more efficient to build/operate than a “vertical” design. The paid expert’s answer “Not necessarily” He went on to explain that a vertical design can actually be more efficient, and safer to operate. It has more to due with design, than vertical vs. horizontal.

    I only hope that Jack makes good on his “robust public process” he talked about in his campaign literature (Riley has a link to the mail piece in an earlier entry).

  3. Anyone that would go back and look at the actual facts of the privately ran facility that was operated by SSP would see the benefit this type of facility offers. It costs the tax payers less money and offers a great alternative for low risk offenders. At the time that there was inappropriate behavior at the SSP facility, the jail was going through the same type of situation. SSP was on the front page of the Herald and the incident at the jail was on page 3 (or something like that). Elfo stated that SSP should be shut down due to the fact that a private employer is not able to do the same type of background check that is required at the jail. WHAT…you had one of your own employees that went through how many hiring steps, and he still played patty cake with a female inmate, and it was not consensual. Yes, I do realize it does not matter if it is consensual or not. If an investigation finds just cause then i do believe that they should be fired. There is never an excuse for playing around on duty. All it does is give everyone a bad name.

  4. Riley:
    You are forgetting that in the near future every American will either be IN jail or working for the prison system. With this in mind, we think a 20,000 bed facility would not be too excessive;-) We thought this insight to be original until reading the following:

    The Jailers and the Jailed:
    That will be the new two-tier social order
    with pharmaceuticals the unofficial currency
    distributed at the stadia and KFCs
    of the unfamilied. Think of New Orleans
    and multiply by n.
    The jailers will own their own vans
    and take vacations in the Yucatan
    and Guantanamo. They’ll know themselves
    to be a cut above the people they piss on,
    but neither the jailers nor the jailed
    will ever physically encounter those
    who own them, shadowy figures as invisible
    as movie stars. Once a year both classes
    can get stoned and cast their ballots
    for best victim in a documentary. So that
    is what democracy means to me.
    Now, have I won the essay contest?

    Poem by the late Tom Disch

    Note: Tom killed himself July 4, 2008.

  5. […] I have an update on Bill Elfo’s capitalizing on the recent riot to drum up support for his over-sized, way-too-expensive jail. I have details on the sites being considered and what that means for the future of Whatcom […]

  6. […] They recommended a much smaller 500-700 beds for the new jail. “Based on information gathered to date, the JPTF has determined that it is reasonable to estimate that the number of beds required for initial construction should be in the range of 500-700.” This fits more in line with other communities of similar size (see my chart here). […]

  7. […] in there including a screenshot of my facebook page, the sheriff’s office contributing to Elfo’s astroturfing group and the continuing influence of Dewey Dessler. I will have a full report this weekend provided […]

  8. […] Safety Now (PSN), the community group made up of Elfo’s reelection campaign that is cranking up the pressure to build a large jail, seems thoroughly entwined with the […]

  9. […] is the Right Size for our community. I shared with the council some comparisons to other counties (you can find the numbers I used here). Two members of the Public Safety Now group, that organization made up of many of Elfo’s […]

  10. […] that Papadakis continues to miss, is that his group is not advocating for the 500-700 beds that the Jail Planning Task Force recommended. His group, according to their website, is advocating for “600-750 beds”. […]

  11. […] In light of plummeting crime rates and the recent legalization of marijuana, do we really need a giant 700 bed jail the Sheriff is proposing or a more reasonable 500 bed jail? “Like most things, you are going to meet some […]

  12. […] Ray Baribeau (middle) of Elfo’s advocacy group, Public Safety Now […]

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