Following a narrow path behind the glass-shrouded Whatcom County courthouse, one can find the entrance to the county jail. Officers wait in front of doors while the sole control room operator watches the cameras, giving them the loud, buzzing go-ahead.
On Sept. 25, 2023, the Bellingham City Council had a public hearing to discuss a resolution supporting Proposition 2023-04, a county sales and use tax that would go towards building a new jail and projects supported in the County’s Justice Project Implementation Plan.
When it opened in 1984, the jail fit 148 inmates who were booked for small, often victimless crimes, Lieutenant Caleb Erickson said. There was enough space to move everyone into half of the building while the other half was cleaned.
Today, every corner, closet and bit of wall space is used to fit, at capacity, over 330 inmates and medical staff. Erickson said he would like a jail where everyone has space to call their own. Currently, with inmates bunking in what used to be rec rooms, that is not possible.
If the tax passes during the Nov. 7 general election, Whatcom County would collect a sales and use tax of two-tenths of one percent. This translates into 20 cents per $100.
“We’ve scaled down the population of people who absolutely have needed to be in custody,” Erickson said. Over 50% of the inmates have committed violent crimes and around a dozen are there for murder.
Six out of seven members of the council voted in favor of encouraging a “yes” vote from voters on the tax.
Councilmember Daniel Hammill voted against supporting the tax when it was presented in 2015 and 2017. He then served on a stakeholder advisory committee, developing plans for a new jail that was more than just a concrete box. After a year of working on the committee, Hammill felt there was a productive path forward.
The committee created the Justice Project Needs Assessment Implementation Plan to find common community goals and values around our justice system and ideas for the future.
“That’s part of this proposal, is that there is a way to move people out of the system and get them the help that they need, including housing,” Hammill said in the meeting before being the first to move to support the resolution.
”The truth is Prop 4 is shockingly similar to the past tax attempts Whatcom has voted no on,” according to a document from No Whatcom Jails, a group who, as their name suggests, is urging for a “no” vote for the 2023-04 proposition.
The location, which is on wetlands and in a flood zone, capacity and source of funding is the same as past jail proposals, according to No Whatcom Jails. They emphasized that the proposition does not guarantee the funding of other services but will instead focus on the jail.
The vision and values of the tax have been decided on, Councilmember Lisa Anderson said. “Exactly how those services get formulated, the plan isn’t completely lined out,” she explained.
Anderson used to teach GED courses in the current jail. She said her staff was scared to enter the jail, experiencing broken down elevators, detoxing inmates yelling at guards near where they were working and being pushed aside in an emergency.
The workspace of the medical staff illustrates the lack of space. What was meant to be a small, open room is now cramped with extra desks, some less than a foot away from the cells holding inmates receiving medical attention. “There’s only so much you can do with what we got,” Erickson said.
Before she was a councilmember, Anderson voted against a new jail twice. She did not see enough efforts for the rehabilitation, education or mental health support she believed necessary.
”It just felt overdone on a law enforcement side,” Anderson said. She now feels individuals in custody will have greater opportunities to address the underlying issues that led them to jail.
After six councilmembers had shared their support at the hearing, Kristina Michele Martens, the councilmember-at-large, was the only “nay” vote.
Martens was not surprised at the state of the jail.
“It's like this everywhere,” she said. “The jail and the prison system itself was never made to be rehabilitation.”
Martens does not think that incarceration, rehabilitation or mental health support should go hand in hand. Uniformed officers are overfunded, while case managers, mental health professionals and the like are underfunded, she said.
“If we want … a recovery system, that has to be built entirely by the people who specialize in recovery, not in incarceration,” Martens said.
No Whatcom Jails does not believe a larger jail will do anything for crime rates or substance use.
“What has been proven to work in reducing crime rates and substance use is increasing social services and alleviating material conditions in communities rather than in jails,” they said.
No Whatcom Jails is in support of safe needle exchanges, access to Narcan, decriminalization, housing first programs, affordable medical care and more. They cited programs such as the Lummi CEDAR and C.A.R.E. program, the Bellingham Food Bank and the aforementioned GRACE program as effective paths forward.
Proposition 2023-04 will be on the ballot for the Nov. 7 general election.
Jemma Alexander (she/her) is a campus life reporter for The Front. She is a senior majoring in journalism new/ed and minoring in Arab American studies. When she's not doing homework, Jemma is likely working, talking loudly over movies with her roommates or dancing ’till she drops. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.