Thurston County demonstrates how NOT to build a jail

(This article was originally published on the Freedom Foundation blog on June 27, 2013, written by Glen Morgan, while he was the Property Rights Director at the Freedom Foundation.  The original article posting was deleted by the Freedom Foundation in 2017.  It has been reposted here exactly as it was originally written. Some links no longer work and have been removed and some original images are no longer included in the article)

The poster below, modeled on the famous ubiquitous motivational posters found in every politicall-correct office, has the following caption: “MISTAKES – it could be that the purpose of your life is only to serve as a warning to others.”  I was reminded of this poster as I marvel at the Thurston County jail debacle. 

To be fair to all big building projects, something always goes wrong, and mistakes happen while trying to build anything. It doesn’t matter whether you are building a garden shed or a major bridge. However, it is rare to make major mistakes at every step of the process and, despite the obvious fiasco unfolding, to declare success along the way (see County Manager Don Krupp’s quotes here and Commissioner comments on this video). But the Thurston County Commissioners and senior-level staff do so on a regular basis.

It isn’t hard to discover these types of disasters in Thurston County, but some of them do stand out from the background noise as epic failures which should be displayed for everyone as examples of what government should NOT do. Several jurisdictions in Washington State, including Skagit County and Whatcom County, are planning to build new jails. We hope the Thurston County Commissioner’s obvious incompetence and poor choices serve as a warning and help others avoid making the same mistakes. It might be too late for the citizens of Thurston County, who will spend generations paying for current commissioners’ mistakes and incompetence. But it isn’t too late for other county governments.

What Happened in Thurston County

In summary, Thurston County needed a new jail. The old jail was crowded and run down. The Thurston County Commissioners put together the Taj Mahal design of Jail, Law and Justice Centers into a utopian concept that must be built only after foisting a massive $103 million initial proposed cost on Thurston’s taxpayers (including interest on bond repayments this would have been about $120 million). The voters rejected the $88 million bond portion of this utopian scheme overwhelmingly, and the attempt to impose an additional excise tax died shortly after that failure. The Thurston County Commissioners decided the voters were stupid, so they went ahead and borrowed over $45 million anyway to build a mini-version of the original jail design. They built this jail in 2010, and three years later it still sits empty – with no honest date in sight for it to open for inmates.

The ARC jail – still empty – years later…

For the last several years, the opening date has been six months away or so (for example, as promised last year by Commissioner Wolf here and later, in this article, and I’ve attended several meetings where the jail opening was only months away for over a year), but like most political promises made by the Thurston County Commissioners – it never seems to happen.

This sad saga includes every aspect of incompetence found at the County Commissioner level and on public display for all to see. 

From the beginning, the disease of political correctness infected the process. To keep the criminals from feeling bad about going to “jail,” they called the jail the “Thurston Accountability and Restitution Center,” or the “ARC” for short. Most people still call it the jail or, more accurately, the “empty jail.” While a lot of time and energy was spent inventing euphemisms for the word “jail,” nobody apparently bothered to check State law when it came to relocating the courthouse. When it was finally pointed out to Thurston County that they had purchased land in Tumwater rather than Olympia and that District Court must be located in the City of Olympia, there was first efforts to get the legislature to change the law, followed by substantial scrambling to pretend the mistake never happened.

Then, there was the fairly significant problem that the built jail was too small. Yes, despite $45 million in debt heaped on future generations (unborn children will still be paying this debt with their taxes in the future, and the true cost with interest will be closer to $68 million), the built jail is too small to handle the current inmate population, let alone handle the growth of the incarcerated population in the near future. 

The jail was not originally designed or built to handle multiple jail populations (i.e. female inmates separate from the male inmates).  There was no provision to handle the work release program, which cost taxpayers another $5-6 million to fix and add. And they didn’t want to put up a fence, so they were able to strong-arm the City of Tumwater to drop that requirement. 

On top of this, the Thurston County Commissioners failed to adequately budget for the additional staff needed to run the new jail. This was not a trivial budget item, but they just didn’t think about it. Despite the massive, bloated, invasive planning department, nobody “planned” for this aspect of the jail either. There was some effort to shift the blame to the recently elected sheriff, as well. 

Once the jail was built (a victory of sorts), it was never intended to sit empty for long periods of time. So it started costing hundreds of thousands of dollars a year for maintenance as HVAC systems and plumbing systems had problems and parts broke.  The weeds grew tall in the yard, and the ARC, a monument to incompetence, sits vacant right now with no believable “opening” date scheduled yet.

Prisoners aren’t the only ones in the dark in Thurston County

Last November, when two of the current Thurston County Commissioners – Cathy Wolfe and Sandra Romero – were running for reelection, they promised the jail would be open in the fall, then by January, and eventually this July.  After their reelection, they quickly tossed these promises, and the jail still sits vacant. Maybe it will open next year? It would then be only 4 years after it was built. 

To expose the impressive incompetence of Thurston County, the Nisqually Tribe decided to build a jail of their own in Thurston County on land swapped by the tribe with Thurston County (and Ft. Lewis). The Nisqually notified Thurston County that they would build this jail in 2008 in their five-year plan, a fact which was hidden from local residents by the Thurston County Commissioners until 2012 (see this video of Commissioner Romero being called out at a public hearing). Construction on the new private Tribe jail began, and controversy and local citizen anger erupted. The Tribe recognized the business opportunity in building a jail (almost entirely subsidized by a Federal Government Grant – our tax dollars in action). The Nisqually believed they could get paid to house inmates from Thurston County, and the Tribe jail would be a bargain at $50 per night compared to $100 per night at the Thurston County jail.  The Nisqually Tribe appears able to build a jail for half the cost, for twice the population, and it may not sit empty for 4 years before it gets used. Even amateurs can get it done, and while there are many problems with the Nisqually Jail, perhaps the Nisqually Tribe can teach the Thurston County Commissioners something.

There were plenty of other sideshows in this boondoggle. An old fish cannery building had been purchased for a few million tax dollars about fifteen years ago, but it turned out to not be seismically sound. It required another few million dollars to make safe. It turns out that this building is going to be used for some other government offices (it has sat empty for the last decade, as well). The Thurston County central planning geniuses thought it would be best if the parking lot became a very expensive permanent homeless encampment called Camp Quixote complete with tents.  

Other oddities included the fact that the new empty jail was located right in the middle of expensive, prime industrial business land, which didn’t make the local businesses happy.

The dysfunction and incompetence continues at Thurston County. There is nothing new to this, but perhaps at least something good can come out of the empty “ARC” jail, and others can learn from the Thurston County Commissioners about what NOT to do when attempting to build a jail.

Thurston County Commissioners - They might be able to draw a line but they can not build a jail

From Left to Leftie, Thurston County Commissioner Wolfe, Valenzuela, and Romero.  They might be able to dig holes, but they have real problems building a jail.

Update:  This article was modified after Thurston County Manager Don Krupp contacted the Freedom Foundation.  The original article mentioned two bond issues totaling $150million, but there was only one bond vote in 2004 and the second tax referenced was a planned additional property excise tax, which was shelved after the overwhelming failure of the initial bond vote.  Additional links to the ballot result, the original Thurston County press release, and an additional Olympian article were added for further  original documentation. 


Glen Morgan, Property Rights Director, Freedom Foundation

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