The County Council recently had pause at the financial cost of the proposed new jail facility for Whatcom County, and are waiting for more figures to come in to determine whether we as a county can afford for it can be constructed to ‘green’ LEED standards. That question got me thinking more about the underlying issues, and the irony involved in the very question of a ‘green’ jail. A posting this morning at the Fish-and-Bicycles blog got me a bit more stirred up, and I decided–after posting a comment there–to post a blog of my own on the subject; it is an important topic that could use more thought and discussion.
Jailing is failing, and as a society we are experiencing what my kids would call an epic fail. Warehousing people–most of whom have a number of addressable issues, ranging from mental illness and chemical dependencies to lack of education–and access to education–to poverty is the antithesis of sustainable. The United States is currently #1 in the developed world, and #2 overall, in terms of incarceration rates; higher than North Korea, higher than Cuba, about 70% higher than Russia, about five times the incarceration rate of China. This is not the kind of exceptionalism we should strive for as a nation. It’s not sustainable, however you measure ‘sustainability.’
Building the greenest facility in the world on a greenfield, and requiring utilities extension that will further accelerate greenfield development is also anti-green, no mater the LEED score. If being ‘green’ is about outcomes, rather than PR, the ‘green’ approach here would involve rehabilitating the existing jail (along with the whole damn courthouse; we got taken for a ride when it was built, not that anyone is owning responsibility, despite the fact that key political players are still around who proclaimed it a great deal at the time) and also rehabilitating the residents thereof.
We have some programs in place–drug court, teen court–that are effective; we need more educational inreach into the jail, more treatment services; more meaningful contact with family and friends–all empirically demonstrated to reduce recidivism. We need training for meaningful employment, and less ostracism of ex-cons. These are all more efficiently accomplished with a jail close to those services; i.e., at its current location.
These approaches are not only ‘greener’ than what is proposed, they are also more ethical–and less costly in the long run. As Mark Twain noted over a century ago, “Every time you stop a school, you will have to build a jail.” The reverse also holds; if you want to close or reduce the demand for jails, we need to put resources towards root causes, instead of building edifices which bankrupt us financially and morally.
As a community we are blessed with great resources to address this issue. We have an incredibly bright, diverse and engaged nonprofit community that can take on this work, given a fraction of the resources that building and staffing a new jail will require. I call on County Executive Jack Louws, the County Council and Sheriff Bill Elfo to step up to this challenge and show the true leadership I know you are capable of; leadership which will enrich rather impoverish this place by working to meet the needs of our community ethically and financially.