Doing No More Jails
No New Jail, Spokane County
Chuck Armsbury

Since 1997 The November Coalition has been saying ‘no’ to drug war laws and enforcers, militarization of our police, and the addiction to incarceration. We’ve pointed to the mountainous growth in US imprisonment rates of more than two decades due to punitive and racist drug laws passed under the twelve years of the Reagan+Bush administrations. Expanded during Clinton’s two terms, then through eight years of GW Bush, all warfare was taken to new heights, largely privatized.

Today we are the ones who must say, “No! No more drug war!” Demanding changes in criminal justice ends up including policing, imprisonment and sentencing. With Spokane members and friends we took all of these concerns and grew a grassroots, volunteer campaign urging rejection of proposed jail construction, a Billion Dollar Pig.*

The group has attracted new members and small donations while Commissioners and law enforcement have spent $1.6 million of public money on private contractors, prison siting specialists and sheriffs’ deputies whose job is to sell the jail to wary taxpayers. Claiming lack of funding, Spokane County cancelled rehabilitation and reentry services.

People are wondering if their tax dollars have been spent for answers to complex questions about crime, public safety and incarceration. Polls regularly show that the public wants to stop building the prison industrial complex, but as founders of the November Coalition warned in the late 1990’s––the corporate and business powers who get rich selling prisons and jails to cash-strapped counties grow, too. 

Business and corporate concerns prominent in Spokane County include Integrus Architecture and David Bennett, a self-styled “Prison Consultant” trained in accounting. Between Bennett and Integrus they secured a $1 million payment from Spokane County in October 2007 for the “Corrections Needs Assessment Master Plan.” During the public comment period, November Coalition weighed in. The Master Plan is a detailed look at how the County Jail, court systems and support agencies operate, but excluded any evidence about those controlling jail’s admissions from the start: when the police encounter citizens.

November Coalition’s No New Jail project accepted the Bennett Study as our basic resource for asking tough questions about its findings and conclusions. We were determined to hold leadership’s feet to the fire. We applauded Bennett when he wrote that “new beds alone cannot solve a county’s overcrowding problem,” and agreed when he acknowledged the tendency for beds to fill––as in Build It and They Will Come. Plan authors concluded that “the implementation of these recommendations will result in the more efficient management of existing resources, thereby delaying the day when the county needs to start planning again for more jail beds.”

However, only three months after making the Master Plan available for public evaluation, on May 14, 2008 the three County Commissioners voted to site a new jail adjacent to the existing tower in downtown Spokane. Estimated costs were made public and projected to be about $100 million. By August 12th, Commissioners decided not to place a measure on the November 2008 ballot.

Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich needed more time to ‘educate voters’ about important, unanswered questions in this crucial series of official decisions––reflecting heightened concern about collecting tax money after Spokane’s only major, daily newspaper, The Spokesman-Review, revealed in a July 10 article that estimated cost of new corrections-complex construction jumped in less than three months to $245 million.

A new jail was being planned without time for Bennett’s recommendations to be evaluated, being planned without reliable estimates of needed bed space. Our group began attending jail-planning meetings, writing letters to media, questioning officials, and making our own plans to ‘Just Say No.’ 

Fast forward to December 10, 2009 when the Sheriff held a public workshop for evaluating 10 jail-site alternatives. A member of the audience spoke up early to suggest an 11th option: no site. Not where, but why should we build a new jail? Most of the public testimony turned from siting the jail to rejection of the new jail. The predominant testimony didn’t reflect ‘NOT in my backyard’ sentiment, but rather one of “changing our system to negate the need for a new jail,” wrote workshop attendee Linda Krogh in a published letter to the Review. 

Subsequent meetings brought together more citizens to criticize the siting process and to stand up for programs that help people and reduce crime as best long-term assurance of public safety instead of building more, bigger jails.

At a May 12, 2010 public meeting of all three Commissioners a majority of the audience spoke against siting a new jail. “I think we’re going about it backward,” Spokane resident Anne Whigham said in a Review followup story. Taking different perspectives, speakers steered the agenda away from siting to hard criticism of the process. In testimony broadcast later on KYRS community radio, November Coalition Director Nora Callahan “blistered Commissioners” with hot questions. 

She wanted to know who approved dressing prisoners in pink underwear and why glorify excessive use of force during cell shakedowns. She chastised Commissioner Richard for insensitively cracking a joke about using inexpensive fencing and dogs or alligators to control prisoners. About 20 people signed in to speak-out against new jail construction and in favor of programs to control overcrowding, including a former jailer who retired after 30 years’ service. Only a rep from Spokane’s downtown business group spoke in support of new construction.

As the altered meeting-agenda wound down, jail opponent Mike Poulin said to me, “I knew we’d win with our numbers, but I never thought we’d get to talk about morals and ethics.” We did.

Even more strange, a Commissioner and Sheriff’s deputy next began telling the audience about success reducing the jail’s population, citing some impressive numbers. County officials couldn’t fully account for the reduction, but that revelation only led to even bigger news in following days.

“County lays off jail workers” topped the Review’s front page for May 19, 2010. Apparently, successful reduction of the overcrowded jail was so phenomenal as to next require laying off 67 jail employees, a ‘catastrophic event’ as described by their union leaders. Sheriff Knezovich admitted that improved case management had made the County a “victim of its own success.” 

While Review Associate Editor Gary Crooks argued in a May 9th Sunday column that the “best jail plan rethinks the system,” other Review editors seemed less sure about the overall plan in their main column for May 29: “Jail data striking, but inconclusive on expansion.” “David Bennett says it is even difficult at this point to draw solid conclusions on what specifically is working, but the county now has the tools to measure progress,” wrote the editors.

Despite major uncertainties, numerous unanswered questions and sharp public opposition, on June 9, 2010 the Spokane County Commissioners voted 2-1 to site a new multimillion-dollar jail southwest of Spokane near the town of Medical Lake.  

No New Jail organizers will continue to rely on a simple strategy that trusts voters will reject expensive new construction and support cost-effective, humane alternatives that help reduce crime, control the jail’s population, and ensure public safety.

* Visit No New Jail website
** Read the Entire Plan archived at No New Prisons
*** Spokesman-Review newspaper

Next Article: The priority isn't treatment, the priority is punishment