Jail Is Unsafe, Inefficient 

by Emma Bjornsrud

The current Whatcom County jail is insufficient, overcrowded and in disrepair.

“The current facility, by almost any metric, is decrepit and challenging to work in — not a great space for human beings to be in,” said Jack Hovenier, who came to be involved in Whatcom County criminal justice programs because of his own experience there.

Many multipurpose spaces that could be used for recreation, education, medical and vocational services or other resources have been converted into housing or storage areas. Cells that were designed to house one inmate have been updated with bunks and plastic, cot-like “boats” to accommodate up to three people at a time.

A video (2) produced for the SAC leads viewers on a tour of the jail, highlighting the small, crowded spaces which prevail in the pre-booking area and housing spaces, and which exist for the limited number of services provided.

Jail staff make do with limited space and creative storage ideas, but also perform their jobs despite safety risks posed by limited lines of sight and unreliable technology. Hiring and retaining qualified and trained staff can be a challenge, especially when they have to contend with these added workplace stressors.

The medical clinic team works in a tiny area in the jail, limiting the number of services they can provide, including exams and procedures. Staff struggle to protect patient privacy in shared and crowded spaces.

The kitchen is a dysfunctional space without enough preparation space to adequately provide the over 1,200 meals necessary between three county facilities. Inmates working there breathe in mold and endure heat due to poor ventilation.

A 2016 report on the physical and operational conditions of the Whatcom County jail cited significant deficiencies including failing locks, heating and plumbing problems and more. Although some changes have been made since the publication of the 2016 report, some major concerns remain.

Whatcom County spent over $9 million on necessary repairs and maintenance at the jail between 2011 and 2021. The SAC’s needs assessment reports a projected cost of $27 million for future maintenance on the existing building over the next two decades.

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