Posted by: sweeneyblog | May 29, 2013

Jail Plans Made Without Updated Needs Assessment

When analyzing the latest information about the proposed new jail, I was very curious where they came up with the number of beds needed. Right now the current proposal is for a facility with 660 beds that would scale up to 800 beds in 2030, despite the fact that 500 beds is much closer to our actual needs for the next twenty years. So where did the 660 bed number come from?

About that needs analysis . . .

Sheriff Bill Elfo

According to the press release put out by the county, these numbers come from a needs analysis. “The first phase would open in 2017 with up to 660 beds. Based on a needs analysis through 2040, it is anticipated that a future phase might occur after 2030 which could bring the facility to approximately 800 beds total.” (emphasis mine).

Naturally, I looked on the county website for the needs analysis but it was nowhere to be found. So I put in a public records request, and you know what I discovered?

It doesn’t exist. At least not yet.

There is an outdated needs analysis from June 2008 which everyone agrees is incredibly flawed. It was that needs analysis that lead to the earlier 820 bed facility that Sheriff Elfo was promoting in 2011, until public outcry forced him to withdraw the proposal. But Mike Russell, facilities manager for Whatcom County and one of the leads on the new jail, responded to my public records request and contends they are not using that document to guide this project.

So what are they using to decide how large a facility is necessary? They are using a number from a needs analysis that has not been written and will not be completed for another four months. That’s right, they are planning to build a jail of a certain size before doing the homework to figure out how big the jail needs to be. Here is Russell’s email responding to my public records request:

“As we discussed the new needs assessment will be completed around the end of September.  It will give us a much more accurate picture of the number of beds needed for the new jail.  As you know the old needs assessment is not up to date.  The 660 number was used in the EIS scoping statement as a projected number until the current needs assessment is completed.   I understand from you that this concludes our public records request on this issue.”

Russell later called me to help clarify his statement. I asked him repeatedly where the 660 bed projection came from and he said it was a result of the Jail Planning Task Force. I have read the Jail Planning Task Force’s report and nowhere in there did it ask for a facility with 660 beds. Russell responded that it must have come from the working group on the proposed jail. I asked if he meant the executive jail planning work group, which has zero representation by mental health advocates or Right Size Jail members. He confirmed that this group is the one who came up with the 660 bed projection.

Since the minutes of this group’s discussions are not publicly available, I am filing another public records request to see how they came up with this projection, but it seems to me excessively foolish to start plans for a jail without first determining what you need.



  1. Keep on em Riley!!!!! Great post!!!

  2. Yes, we need all those beds for all of the many marijuana convictions we expect to have in Whatcom County ging forward…

  3. Thank you!

  4. My initial inclination was to write a tart and flippant comment on the irresponsibility of Whatcom County taxpayers, who are so flagrantly inattentive to the self-aggrandizing, empire-building efforts of the Sheriff’s Department as to allow this to occur. My second inclination was to lambast the Sheriff and the County administration for advancing this mega-incarceration facility proposal in the absence of any discernible justification for it. My third inclination is to evoke a paranoid thought on how this represents yet more government “prison-industrial complex” maneuvering for profit and “job creation” based on the misfortunes of the citizenry. My final decision is to forget all of that because it’s entirely hopeless.

  5. Good work, Riley. Thank you.

  6. Good work, Riley! It is amazing that a number like 660 gets thrown around with no legitimate source behind it. Thanks for shedding light on the issue.

  7. As a ferndale resident, I am aghast! We found they selected Ferndale like, a week ago…our own mayor & council are already holding planning sessions to develop “set backs & final design”!—Did y’all know they considered 9 sites, and only one had utilities adequate?—Guess who?—Ferndale.—Bellingham was not even considered—they’ll get this turd out of their “theatre” district and dump it on Ferndale. Until now this has been an ‘abstract’—well they picked us, and now real residents have a real complex coming—we can put names to those adversely affected by this—now is when process should begin—but low & behold, the EIS submission process ends tomorrow!—We got 24 hrs notice that the town council, at my urging, is gonna ‘discuss’ a non binding resolution ‘for’ or ‘against’—of course they did one for GPT—“In favor”—Whatcom county residents—we in Ferndale need your help—our children still walk to school—that will end…along with a lot of other reasons we live here to begin with. We have a FB page…”No Jail In Ferndale”—please help us…glenn stewart, ferndale resident

  8. What bothers me most (besides the fact that without citizen journalists like Riley local democracy would simply do as little as they can get away with…) is not that we need a new jail with many beds. What bothers me is that if we spent the equivalent amount of tax dollars on a corporate recruitment we could build office parks and jobs instead of jail space. Most of the social service programs in our country and county could simply be eliminated if we restructured our economy to provide affluence to working and middle class families. Jails are sold as public safety. In reality, increasing jail space is simply capitalism’s answer to poverty.

    • amen, RFERRISX

  9. Who said good investigative reporting was dead? Keep it going Riley. You’re a 14 carat nugget in a sea of fool’s gold.

    • I agree Arthur…Riley has done a lot of the heavy lifting on this…now it’s time for the actual real jail to be stopped in Ferndale—the proponents have increased the velocity of this beast to high speed—I’m not laying down for it—this is Ferndale’s ‘hurricane’—only this coming-disaster is wholly man-made, and we can even name the inventors and the constructors of this monster.

  10. Can they move the courthouse there, right next to the jail? Cuz that is the most sensible and cost effective thing, having the jail next to the courthouse. Otherwise you are paying $4 a gallon and maintainence for a fleet of secure vehicles and drivers.

    • Huey…in principle you’re right…but the truth is, the courthouse is the beginning…from there we go to bail bonding companies, then mental health services, then the dozens of non profits and for profits (drug treatment, etc.) who service the court/jail, then the public defenders, the prosecutors and their staffs…and the taxis, the buses, and, and, and…literally thousands of people who serve that system…so naturally they want to separate the jail from it’s entire support system/infrastructure—why would a Ferndale resident mind all that?…It is a disaster for our small city, we will be ‘prison town’ USA—yeh

  11. The tragedy is that after years of study, we are at this point. It is a sad example of public official incompetence, insufficient daylight and public insouciance. In the meanwhile, we continue to house them inmates–most of whom are mentally ill–in inhumane and unsafe conditions. The current jail is wrongful death and reckless endangerment suits wating to happen. A new jail will not solve one of the biggest problems–too many sherriff’s deputies who are act like they typecast from a “B” Hollywood movie and treat non-convicted inmates like they are the scum of the earth.

    Thanks, Riley, for doing what the Herald should be doing.

    • Amen Bob Burr.
      A Sheriff’s office full of hammers for a jail consisting of nails.

  12. Thank you Riley for digging and digging to get to the facts. The new jail must be based on good data and Whatcom County must follow best practices in moving forward. I believe the County Council needs to step into the driver’s seat on this one: they cannot stand back and allow the sheriff to push for a jail that we can’t afford and that is much larger than we need.

    The jail is part of a larger system. With the County Council in the lead, they can pull together the system-wide resources to make sure we reduce our expenses by avoiding jail. That means diverting the mentally ill into treatment, not jail. Diverting drug users into treatment, not jail. Reminding people to show up for hearings (just like your dentist reminds you to show up) so that they don’t get jailed for ‘failure to appear’ later.

    All of those things cost less than jail. Unfortunately if the County Council sits back and waits for this to come to them, we’re headed for the same train wreck we saw 2 years ago: the sheriff pushing for a giant office, public works pushing for a giant warehouse, and a 3rd jail that is much bigger than we need and in a location that adds too much to the cost of operating it.

    • really great comments…very thoughtful, which this process needs about now…Riley’s work, as well as Joy’s over at the Re-Entry coalition has revealed some disconcerting trends and specific actions on the part of the County authorities regarding ‘bed space’ needs…Wendy King signed an administrative order reducing ‘time-off for good behavior’ from 1/3rd to 1/6th, which puts our County way out of the main on that alone…Drug Court is near de-funded, and is curiously the only aspect of the ‘criminal justice’ system run entirely by the clerk’s office—monitoring, etc., etc…for all other justice system matters, the prosecutor’s and the Sheriff run things, the clerk’s office has only “data filing, records maintenance” responsibilities…The 2012 budget reveals a $70,000 cut in the prosecutor’s budget, and a $139,000 cut in the Public Defender’s budget…do we need more beds? Maybe. Are we creating the need by way of a misguided “catch, lockup, and maybe later release” policies? Almost certainly.

  13. The County still has to get us citizens to pay for this boondoggle they are rushing headline into sticking us with. Who is going to vote yes to a bond obligation for a project which will double the cost of incarceration in Whatcom County?

    This jail project is a fiscally irresponsible empire-building exercise. It won’t happen if they can’t pay for it – and they have to put a bond issue to a vote. What amazes me is that the County Exec, with his Lynden Dutch businessman credentials, is supporting this complete waste of public funds. Shameful. What a disgraceful breaking of the virtues of thrift, prudence, and openness in the management of the public treasure he is entrusted with.

    • As a Ferndale resident of 17 yrs., I of course could not help but notice that Ferndale, a city smaller than Lynden by every measure, is the County Execs’ favorite site, not Lynden…Kelli also doesn’t seem to mind getting this huge turd out of ‘her’ theatre district. Did you notice Bellingham was not one of the final sites considered? And when asked directly, the Sheriff says he picked Ferndale because it was the only site with the utilities capability—so, let’s get this straight so we don’t misunderstand…Bellingham doesn’t have the land for, or capability of ‘hooking’ up 800 beds and attendant toilets to their system, but Ferndale does?—Really?

    • Divadab, Whatcom County has nearly 400 million dollars in debt capacity that DOES NOT REQUIRE a vote of the people.

      As evidenced by the last election in 2011, those that support a reasonably sized jail located within the CIty of Bellingham are in the minority. There were candidates for both County and City leadership positions that were vocal about the size and location of a new jail. However, Bill Elfo was overwhelmingly re-elected (even after everyone had the opportunity to view (through the Draft EIS) what his vision was for a new jail in Whatcom County) and Dan Pike (who supported a downtown location for the jail) was defeated by Mayor Linville.

      • Since the beginning of this jail thing, it has been essentially an abstract, at least as presented…bed numbers have moved, costs have moved, up and down, sites have been looked-at, sites have been eliminated, but until now, no site was known.

        May 7 it became ‘real’ for the first time. Real people with real lives and real homes; people with names can be identified as potentially having to live with this huge game changer in perpetuity. And yet, the ‘window’ for inclusion of desired matters in the upcoming EIS closed yesterday—until a week ago, nothing about Ferndale being selected was on the city FB page, there was a deeply buried mention of the jail on the city website, about 4 or 5 ‘clicks’ in. In short order we discovered that of the several finalists, only one had utility capability to serve the complex. State law requires that a viable alternative be given equal treatment in the EIS—and County authorities have already unabashedly said that they chose Ferndale for the utilities, though the Sheriff said something about the nearest school being “a mile away.”

        Meanwhile, the Lummi Nation and Ferndale have been negotiating to jointly and responsibly develop that area to the benefit of both communities, including sharing utilities, tax sharing, and more. Bellingham has expressed in a variety of ways their desire to essentially annex the area, and when confronted, at least one official was heard to say, “Because Ferndale will undermine Bellingham’s tax base”—in other words, with anything but a jail on the freeway, we’ll catch the Canadians before they get to Bellingham.

        This is not about ‘siting a new jail,’ it is about a huge County game changer, a shift in the balance of commerce and jurisdictions, and tax collection and distribution as well.

        It’s also about my historic downtown core being lined with bail bonding companies.

      • One may arguably reduce the bad smell of this whole thing to one question: If ‘utilities’ was the issue, why was Bellingham not in the top 5 finalists? Kelli has no problem pushing this out of her theater district and siting by while the county drops this turd on Ferndale.

  14. Obviously the issues with the jail and the duplicitous methods used to advance them are known and understood. The question is, What will the citizenry do to stop it? I suspect, given the history of Whatcom County the answer is, Not much.

    • I’m one citizen trying to do something, and my mission is to ‘wake-up’ Ferndale, since this beast will be at our front door. Help from those who’ve been agitating against this for several years would be great—The Lummi also have a stake in this—this will screw up all they want to do along that corridor—Ironically, while my town council (w/one exception) ‘discusses’ whether or not to oppose this, even in principle, they are negotiating with the Lummi for tax-sharing on properties that border our city—in truth, ours & the Lummis’ cooperation on responsible development is the best way to develop that area, and most beneficial to all involved…It is not uninteresting that when our mayor tried to get big-retail in Ferndale, Bellingham screamed and blocked, etc., etc. because it would “undermine their tax base”–meaning we’d catch the Canadians before they got to Bellingham—Bellingham is against what we want to do with our Lummi neighbors for exactly the same reason…Somehow this huge ‘development’—namely, a jail locating in Ferndale, has met with silence from our Bellingham friends…and so it goes…

  15. So, noble sentiments posted here but the question remains: Now what’s going to be done?

    • good question KAC, and I have a good answer, cause that’s how I think. We have a tendency to win the arguments and lose issue. So, I’m leading an effort in Ferndale to challenge the EIS, which is our next opportunity to decrease the velocity of this thing. The EIS, contracted to a firm paid-for by the proponents, going-in does not meet the statutory requirements governing the composition of an EIS. I have specifics, but it’s much to much to recount here, I have it at our No Jail In Ferndale FB page, once there I can send it to you…We managed, with some expert help to get an addendum in before yesterday’s deadline, and so we are in compliance, and thus preserving our right to appeal the results later.
      Among our many requests is that EIS be reviewed by an independent agency or firm.
      Now, should they adopt our recommendations as to items to include in the EIS, and should they follow-though, we will have had a significant impact.

      So that’s a peak, though much more has already taken place on our side, and several County level advocacy groups have offered, and have already rendered assistance.

      This is a game-changer for Ferndale—our homes, our community, the way of life for which we all staked what we have, is threatened by this beast. I don’t need to be certain that we can stop this in order to fight it. Whatever anyone’s view of our chances, I’m not leaving the smallest chance on the table without resistance, and a genuine effort to get this jail thing right.

      • A commendable effort, a comment I make with no ironic overtones whatsoever. Perhaps, since this blog is sympathetic to the problem and is also widely read (plus, some of us don’t actually use Facebook, hard as that is to believe and won’t access it due to its “privacy” policies), you might be able to post some key aspects of it here.

      • That’s a good idea KAC..I appreciate that…we want everything we do to be open…we have no secrets, and transparency (lack thereof) is one of our ‘issues.’ As a small bonus, the more forthcoming we are the better the contrast to our opponents…I’m gonna ck with Riley and see how he thinks would be best to post the data, the EIS request, etc…

  16. I hope he is receptive to the proposal. Another option: an on-line petition. It seems to me that there is now sufficient annoyance with the elected officials of the County Council (GPT), the Sheriff’s Office (Elfo) and a legion of others to tap into that, galvanizing support for a recall election, ballot measure banning use of taxpayer dollars for unapproved measures (oversized jail). It probably won’t be successful, but it effectively communicates the large reservoir of annoyance and dissatisfaction in the area.

    • Great thoughts & ideas KAC—the online petition should/will happen, and ‘re-call,’ at least in our little town, is a subject to consider after we in Ferndale see how our city officials handle this…In Ferndale, your mayor and councilpersons are also your neighbors, their children attend school with your children…we have 3 council seats up this Nov…and should the County succeed in dumping this turd on Ferndale, a substantial block of County voters—namely Ferndale will be a hard group for the present leaders to win.—First and foremost we want to offer viable alternatives, even solutions, and not just ‘curse the darkness,’ as some activists are prone to do—We get heard by having something constructive to say, factional yelling won’t fix this, the opposition has most of the power…thank you so much for your interest in this…and your constructive input…

  17. The fact that your “representatives” are also your friends and neighbors presumably induces them to represent your interests, rather than capitalize on their positions of responsibility for purposes of future self-enrichment or to advance the agenda of a narrow segment of the electorate against those of the “body politic”. In other words, while avoiding strident and divisive demands, a cool, rational exposition of the facts (including the cost of construction, maintenance, transportation, impact of the facility on property values, etc) might be a reasonable first approach to be conducted in a “town hall” style meeting. However, that’s been done and it has obviously been to no avail. Thus, a more direct attention-getter in the form of a taxpayer “revolt” (ballot initiative that effectively de-funds the jail) or recall petitions might tend to focus the attention of elected officials very acutely on the fact that the public is aware of the chicanery used to advance the jail program and alert the incumbent that undesirable action can and will be taken into consideration either now (recall) or later (next election) or both.

    • I hear ya KAC, I’m pretty pissed-off myself with all of it…Having said that…I often disagree with my mayor and various councilmembers, but they were elected, fair & square, and they have done nothing in my mind—yet—that would compel my actions at this point to begin with removal from office. That is most often the first instinct of my Right-wing friends—I’m passionate about this issue, as it regards Ferndale, and any action anyone decides to take to oppose the jail here, or anywhere else is their duty as citizens…I have some confidence in my approach for the moment—events and circumstances can change in nearly an instant…In a representative democracy you win some and you lose some, and elections matter—we have requested in our formal “Request for Addendum to the EIS” that the matter be put to Ferndale voters at least regarding the ‘site,’ and our City Council is to discuss just that, at our urging, in a few days…So far our City officials have done everything we’ve asked, that is since we began asking just a week ago—they saw this coming and did nothing—and that is not unnoticed as we opposed this, and as many of them approach an election this fall.

  18. A Zen-like approach, indeed. However, per my understanding, this “fair and square” decision wasn’t based on the jail and office space now proposed. Regardless of the “fair and square” nature of the election, the ramifications are not inconsequential and will be long lasting.

    • I agree KAC, on all accounts…

  19. We in Ferndale, and the County at large oppose this jail in our front yard, and our legal/technical/practical basis for opposition is best found in our formal, official request for inclusion of various items for study…I believe Riley is going to post our request (it’s many pages), and I as a Ferndale resident/citizen sent it to our city clerk for distribution as they consider a resolution in opposition (or in favor) of the jail coming to town…We want our actions to be clear & open, if for no other reason than to stand in stark contrast to jail proponents, who have been too ‘clever’ by-half in their dealings on this matter…we’re at FB ‘No Jail In Ferndale’…

    Hi Sam, I hope you’re enjoying this on-coming summer…

    I’m so glad the Council is going to consider a resolution one way or the other on the County jail issue. Your help facilitating that revealed admirable skill. The nature of our system, and what makes it work, is that you win some and you lose some, you keep trying, and you move on. And while I haven’t won my battles 100% of the time, I have worked to make the process honest 100% of the time. By ‘honest’ I mean in part genuine consideration of all relevant information regarding huge, life & community changing decisions. I’ve been here shy of 20 years, and my reaction to this beast coming to my town is visceral, and passionate—I can only imagine how people who grew-up here, who’s parents made their lives here must feel.

    The EIS request-for-inclusion attached here was composed by Joy Gilfilen at the Whatcom County Re-Entry Coalition, and reflects overall how I view the jail matter, and I’ve learned recently that many of my fellow Ferndale residents have a similar view. For me to start from ‘scratch’ and generate such a document would have been in this case to ‘re-invent the wheel.’
    Will you circulate the document to city officials, especially councilmembers with an eye toward the meeting coming up about the resolution?

    The ‘request’ was filed ‘under the deadline’ of May 30, and so is official and public record. Yesterday I sent it to Riley Sweeney per his request for his blog-audience. A coalition of interested/concerned citizens from the County at large and Ferndale especially is forming, and soon to meet for the purpose of coordination and organization. When we do, we’ll let y’all at City Hall know in advance so you can attend if you want. This EIS request is the basis for our position on the jail in general, and the jail site (Ferndale), specifically. Whether or not the document also forms the basis for opposition to the jail will be better determined as we go along.

    I request that the Ferndale City Council include the EIS request in a non-binding resolution expressing ‘concern’ about the decision to locate the facility as presently conceived in Ferndale. Since our city government has NEPA/SEPA responsibilities, they should endorse our request that the items we articulated be included as a condition for further planning or execution of the jail construction process.

    The issue of possible damage to manufacturing in Ferndale, raised by Councilman Hansen, is an important concern, and is part & parcel of the changes in commerce and economy overall that are inevitable. Cursory research provides a dim view of similar ‘jail towns.’

    Again, thank you Sam. Yours, glenn

  20. Commendable effort. Thank you for the initiative.

    I think approaching this exclusively from the perspective of an EIS may be a strategic error. An EIS is viewed as anathema by many of the conservative denizens of Ferndale: they reflexively associate those letters with “anti-progress” and are therefore conditioned to viscerally register opposition on that (emotional, ideological) basis. An appeal to the tax base may be a nice compliment, however.

    Cost of construction is a minor one compared to the costs of transportation from the Ferndale jail to the Bellingham courts measured in terms of extra deputies and vehicles; this will be a recurring expense and will increase with the jail population, as will fuel prices and wage/benefit packages. There will be the cost of a prisoner holding facility in Bellingham. The cost of feeding and housing those prisoners in the jail isn’t trivial. The expanded adjacent Sheriff’s Office will need new deputies to fill the empty desks. There are others, of course, but these are not trivial adjuncts to the jail construction expenditure.

    Two final considerations: 1) money spent on the jail will not be spent on other more worthy projects and, 2) the proposal was dishonestly presented to the public as the “enhanced product” now under review was initially downplayed and then effectively dismissed at the time of the “Right Size Jail” campaign. Now that it’s “out of the public eye”, it returns in full-form.

    • Excellent thoughts, all of them…and you’re right, the EIS as the only issue would be to miss other opportunities. I’m working to get the word out by way of signs, media, and word of mouth…and have enlisted some people who will add their money to mine to pay for some of the materials needed…we aren’t an ‘501’ anything, just individuals…
      Our EIS request contains data pertinent to what you mentioned, but most of those affected won’t read it, so to that end we’ve gathered what’s needed to delineate the costs specific to Ferndale citizen/taxpayers—one example is the fact that in the past 10 years Ferndale has been on a huge capital building spree, mostly for infrastructure, specifically utility service by way of expanded water treatment, new roads, storm drains, etc., etc. Most of it we approved one way or the other, and a chunk of it was Fed. money we leveraged as did every municipality in the country when the economy crashed.

      Still, our taxes increased, city fees of all kinds have gone up substantially faster than our neighbors…the thing is we did not do all of this so that we could then give it all away to the County for their 800 beds and 2000 toilets (including the sheriff’s office, administration, etc., etc.) We could have hooked-up several hundred homes and businesses that actually grow our town responsibly, which was our intention…you get the idea—And that’s just one maddening aspect for a ferndale resident. This is an issue that for Ferndale I believe crosses ideological lines—even ‘law & order’ conservatives do not want a jail/prison in their ‘backyard.’ Your point about the ever increasing costs as far as the eye can see, and the diminished value of all of our homes is an ominous prospect…

  21. You’re right (of course).

    The incarceration industry is one of the few growth areas in rural communities. Considered in that context, the Sheriff’s Department and it’s supporters are prescient: they’re planning for the future economy of their community. Irony and sarcasm aside, I have some hope that this colossal mistake can be averted (just not much).

  22. […] I was looking into the missing needs analysis for the new jail, I was told that the decision to start drafting designs without first conducting a needs analysis […]

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