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?
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There is an outdated needs analysis from June 2008 which everyone agrees is incredibly flawed.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.