Commentary: Say no to a new jail for Lynnwood

This opinion piece was updated to correct the amount of American Rescue Plan Act funds received by the City of Lynnwood.

Along with the rest of America, Lynnwood residents are becoming increasingly aware of racial injustice and violence towards people of color. We value human life and justice. We believe that, as our constitution says, all people are created equal. So, when we see dehumanization, injustice, and unequal treatment, we realize something is wrong. Many of us have been and still are blind to most injustices, but we are becoming increasingly aware and agree that injustice must end. This is why I want to tell you about the injustice occurring in Lynnwood right now, about the new “Community Justice Center” that is a jail, about Tirhas Tesfatsion, who died in the Lynnwood jail on July 13, and about how city council is handling it.

Jails and prisons serve different purposes. Jail is where people are held after arrest but before they have been convicted of a crime. Lynnwood’s jail is a misdemeanor jail, housing people arrested for a DUI, driving with a suspended license, theft of something worth less than $750, or assault that is not severe enough to be a felony.

People with financial means post bail to get out of jail quickly, so those who spend the most time in jail either cannot afford to pay or are not permitted to pay. In 2021, amidst the COVID pandemic, the Lynnwood City Council voted to prioritize funding a new jail (Community Justice Center) that will triple our current misdemeanor jail size.

The pandemic brought massive job losses and business closures, leaving people unable to pay for housing. At this time, we need affordable housing, not a new jail that will primarily house those unable to pay bail. A misdemeanor jail does not make our community safer. The pandemic has isolated us from one another, leading to loneliness, depression, anxiety, and desperation. We need mental health care.

The pandemic led to children attending school from home, leaving families to struggle to work. The average Washington state family saw their childcare costs increase 55% during the pandemic.  This reminds us of the need for affordable childcare. Not to mention how Covid brought to light discrepancies in access to healthcare.

Housing, mental health care, child care, and health care: These are the things our community needs to focus on to make Lynnwood safer. Instead of funding these areas, Lynnwood City Council wants to build a new misdemeanor jail to house the poor. Jails and prisons incarcerate people of color at significantly higher rates than white people. The unanimous approval of this project came during the middle of the trial against Derek Chauvin, the pursuit of justice for the murder of George Floyd.

The U.S. government has recognized the toll the pandemic has left on families, and Lynnwood has received $10.9 million in American Rescue Plan Funds to use for families. Councilmember Jim Smith explored the possibility of using $5 million of these funds to help pay for the new jail.

Amidst this backdrop, a Black Lynnwood woman, mother, sister, and friend died in jail after being arrested for a traffic violation. The Lynnwood jail demonstrated an inability to keep a human being safe while incarcerated. Imagine being pulled over for a DUI. Imagine being booked into a cell. I feel traumatized when I get a speeding ticket. Being arrested and booked is traumatic and detrimental to mental health. It is a challenging moment in a person’s life. Drug and alcohol disorders are health issues. We attempt to treat them as criminal issues. When people need health care, we punish and traumatize them.

When people are at their lowest point, jailers have protocols to protect people. Lynnwood failed to follow those protocols. Suicide is the leading cause of death in Washington jails/prisons. No wonder. Whether Tirhas Tesfatsion died by suicide or another cause, I don’t know. But if she did die by suicide, the Lynnwood Jail is responsible for failing to protect her at her most desperate hour. She was a mother. A friend. A sister. She had a support system. She didn’t deserve to die.

The jail currently has a capacity of 46 people, and the new jail will have 149 beds. A new jail won’t make our community safer. It will mostly lock up poor people of color. And to pay for the big jail and fill those beds, Lynnwood plans to rent out beds to neighboring cities in Snohomish County. Mountlake Terrace, Bothell, Edmonds, Mill Creek, etc. I do not want my community to be part of the trading and incarcerating of human beings for money. I do not believe that is how the greater Lynnwood community wishes to be represented. Nor do I want to pay the cost of the liability it brings to Lynnwood.

On July 26, Tirhas’ family and the community demanded the city of Lynnwood postpone their final vote to approve the contractor and bid on the Lynnwood jail for three months. City council told the community to come back on Aug. 2, so the council could think about it. The city council has chosen to silence the community by moving the Aug. 2 city council meeting to Zoom and limiting public comments to one hour.

Lynnwood City Council was tone-deaf in approving a new jail in the middle of the Derek Chauvin trial. Approving a $60 million bond without talking to constituents or letting the public vote on the matter showed the city council was not interested in public opinion. Worst, city council silences the public by switching city council back to a Zoom meeting after telling Tirhas’ family to return to an in-person meeting on Aug. 2. Public access is being limited, and council is demonstrating an unwillingness to listen.

Snohomish County residents: Let Lynnwood City Council know that enough is enough. Tell city council: Vote no new Lynnwood Jail. End the racist oppression of the poor and stop the expansion of the Community Justice Center.

— By Jennifer Paterson McLaughlin

Lynnwood resident Jennifer Paterson McLaughlin holds a master of arts degrees in social justice and community organizing from Prescott College. She also serves as vice chair of the Lynnwood Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Commission, although these views are her own and do not represent the commission.


  1. I studied criminal justice and the prison systems in college before graduating summa cum laude.
    I regret the money spent but never the knowledge gained. This Lynnwood jail is far from beneficial in reducing recidivism rates and those pushing for it KNOW this.

    This is a ruse to make it appear that we actually care about our homeless and substance use disordered individuals.

  2. Very well written Jennifer. Your comments are well thought out and help put a spotlight on Lynnwood City Council and Lynnhood government. We citizens really have very little say or sway in important matters such as this and that needs to change. Be careful who you support in Lynnwood. The few chosen “leaders” of this and our neighboring cities aren’t always the smartest, wiser, future visionaries we really need. Thank you Jennifer.

    1. I would agree, well written article.
      I wonder why the police didn’t just patch-up her arm and take her home so she could sleep it off.
      Then have a social worker check up on her later and take it from there to see if they can help get her back on track again.

  3. Homelessness and the criminal justice system are deeply intertwined. People experiencing homelessness are more likely to interact with the justice system because being forced to live outside can lead to citations or arrests for low-level offenses like loitering or sleeping in parks. And people currently or previously involved in the justice system, who are often disconnected from supports and face housing and job discrimination, are more likely to experience homelessness. Black, Indigenous, and Latinx people are also overrepresented among both groups because of systemic and structural racism in housing, criminal justice, employment, and other systems.

    It’s critical that local leaders understand this connection between homelessness and the criminal justice system to develop strategies that better address homelessness, reduce the use of jails, build stronger communities, and ensure everyone has access to safe and stable housing. We gathered evidence from Urban Institute research and other experts to explain the homelessness-jail cycle, and how to break it.
    – People with conviction histories are more likely to experience homelessness
    – Experiencing unsheltered homelessness increases people’s interactions with the justice system
    – The homelessness-jail cycle is expensive for taxpayers
    – A Housing First approach can break the homelessness-jail cycle
    – Local leaders can ensure COVID-19-related changes in police responses to homelessness aren’t temporary

    Source –

    We literally have evidence that explains why there is a cycle. Do the right thing. Stop the jail, and build homes.

  4. Let’s not pretend the construction of these 149 new jail cells is about improving living and safety conditions in Lynnwood. If we wanted to prevent crime and recidivism in the city, we would put every dime of this funding toward mental health care, counseling, drug rehabilitation, and education, particularly for the less financially able among us—and we know this. Countless models of rehabilitation versus incarceration from abroad have shown this to be unambiguously true.

    Let’s pretend—or, rather, confirm—that these 149 new beds provide the city of Lynnwood with a financial incentive. Let’s argue from this point, and take the humanization of the disenfranchised out of the equation. Does a healthy, mentally-well individual not stand to make a better living than someone with no support at all? Does the ability to make a better living not generate further tax revenue for the city? I can’t crunch the exact numbers because I don’t have them, but I would wager that, if city council wanted to play the long game, they would focus available resources on bettering the living conditions for the poorer among us. Giving them a chance to make a better living and therefore generate more tax revenue for the city has the convenient collateral factor of producing a healthier community population, both mentally and physically. Even focusing on financial benefit to the city would produce a convenient humanitarian side effect. Not one member of Lynnwood city council wants to see people incarcerated. Surely, they themselves would feel their stomachs knot were their family, friends, or loved ones punished for falling on hard times. Lynnwood city council needs to do the right thing, if not for the humanity within all of us, then for their political careers and funding.

  5. Where you invest your money says a lot about your values. Create more infrastructure for supporting those who need help, not another place to merely contain people out of sight.

  6. As a current resident of Austin, Texas, where our city just effectively “banned” homelessness (fining and jailing anyone seen panhandling or publicly camping), I was disappointed to learn that Lynnwood was enacting similar, grossly racist and prejudiced plans to build a new jail in the place of shelter and affordable housing. This is a shame on the city of Lynnwood and a tarnish on the state of Washington. As other commenters have mentioned, this will actually help no one in the community, and instead will punish human beings that are a victim of an already-broken financial system by subjecting them to the broken judicial and jailing system that we see fail every single day in the United States.

  7. Focus on helping people most in need not locking people up for trying to exist in a society of systems set up against them. Grow some compassion and intelligence to understand what this shows your community. That your focus is punishment and criminalizing, not actually solving social problems.

  8. We don’t need another jail, we need a community that provides resources to help people begin to thrive again. Homelessness is at an all time high, and it’s only going to get worse with the rising cost of living.

  9. It is detrimental to our area to remove housing. Our homeless population is ever growing and we need safe places. I’m addition a new jail is completely unnecessary, when the current one is already being mismanaged.

  10. If we work on providing for those who need help, that will be beneficial for the community in ways that could mitigate the need for more jail space.

    You also get the benefit of basing an expensive decision on promoting support and welfare of the community rather than focusing on a punishment-based rewards.

    As a licensed mental health counselor, I can confidently say working from a place of support is much more conducive to a healthy community.

  11. This is despicable. The fact that the city is prioritizing the criminalization of people in need over ACTUALLY HELPING THEM continues to perpetuate the capitalist desires of the city over its people. This jail will solve no problems.

  12. Hello,

    I am once again not shocked how the government is taking priority on building a jail instead of helping the homeless population especially during a GLOBAL pandemic to say the least.
    This not only is a negative impact but shifting public resources from health and social supports to the penal system is beyond repulsive when there is a huge need.

    In sum: if we get to the root of the problem and care for it and not the symptoms we will move forward as a community! We don’t need more mass incarceration to fix more mass incarceration. We need to get to the root of the issues! This does not solve a single thing by just building more jails!

    Do right by your fellow citizens and build homes not cells.

    1. This is despicable. An important detail that was left out was that those beds that will be used cover the costs are often paid for by the incarcerated themselves. At rates of $100/night. Stop putting bandaids on a broken arm. A shiny new jail won’t solve anything.

  13. There is so much evidence about the systemic racism in housing and the criminal justice system in America. How can a jail support the residents of Lynnwood over better healthcare services, more housing, and social work funding? Feed people, house them, help them.

  14. Monday: 08/02/2021

    SAY YES TO THE JUSTICE CENTER! The new justice center will provide space for community mental health work,

    Note: almost all of the opposition to the justice center comes from outside of Lynnwood. I don’t want decisions effecting Lynnwood made or influenced by Seattle

    1. That’s factual untrue. This effects all the surrounding areas not just Lynnwood. If they actually cared about mental health then they wouldn’t be building facilities to lock people who have them up.

  15. I disagree with a lot of the comments. I am not sure if we need a new jail or not, but I do not believe just letting people go after committing a crime is working. In Seattle and elsewhere around our region crime is out of control and public safety has been greatly diminished by not enforcing the laws. It is also not humane or caring to release mentally disturbed people that commit violence back to the streets to possibly harm someone or themselves.
    I don’t like spending money if not needed but frankly I just don’t know if we need the jail or not.

    1. Do you not think the source of many of the nonviolent crimes being committed could be remedied via community outreach programs and further involvement from social workers as opposed to law enforcement and incarceration?

        1. Why do we need 149 additional beds when, on average, five were occupied per day throughout the pandemic (thus far.) What justification is there for this additional expense?

    2. It sounds like according to your comment that a mental health facility would be more beneficial then a jail.

  16. I support FULL FUNDING for the upgrade of the Criminal Justice Center. This upgrade is long overdue and is needed for the safety and protection of the residents of Lynnwood and those who work and visit here.

    As tomorrow is our primary I will be asking myself two additional questions as I consider the candidates for mayor and council. #1: will this candidate fully support and fund the upgrade proposal? #2: will this candidate, if elected, support the LPD and make sure the upgraded center is fully utilized for the benefit of all residents of Lynnwood?

    Thank you.

    1. With the old jail housing five people per day on average during the pandemic, what justification could there be for 149 additional beds, aside from financial incentives to outsource incarceration? Wherein lies the community or humanitarian benefit?

    2. How does outsourcing jail cells to neighboring counties benefit the safety and well-being of Lynnwood residents? Furthermore, how is incarceration for nonviolent crimes that veritably stem from poverty and poor economic status more beneficial than community outreach programs and involvement from social workers instead of law enforcement?

    3. Anthony,

      Are you saying your vote solely realize on who supports this jail? What a shame to know that there are individuals who only vote for people spending money on incarcerating the poor instead of building homes for families. The only residents who are benefiting are the ones who make money off of this. So glad your voted doesn’t dictate thousands of lives.

  17. I live in Lynnwood, and – yes – my spouse wrote this. What’s exceedlingly clear about this decision on the community justice center (which – to be clear – is actually a ~150 bed jail), is that Lynnwood City Council is facing a decision where a lot of people stand to lose, and the people losing are those that have already lost too much. Sure, spending $60 million of taxpayer money and $5+ million in American Rescue Act funds is the type of decision that would seem to require a lot more public process than what the Council has afforded for this important prioritization of Lynnwood resources. Sure, this decision is making a value statement that places incarceration of yet-to-be charged and almost entirely non-violent misdemeanants above the very issues forming the platforms of winning City Council members – Financial stewardship, diversity, housing, and being an attractive place for business. Sure, if Lynnwood City council votes to move forward with this jail in the midst of the death of Tirhas Tesfatsion in the same system Lynnwood wants to expand, against the grief of her family, it will be the very definition of tone deaf. But – most importantly – the current plan is an attack on the poor, and the largely black and brown people who are already oppressed by the criminal justice system. And here is the main point. Housing helps the poor. Community-based mental health service outside the criminal justice system. heals the suffering. A commitment to diversity recognizes the injustice of racial minorities. But this current plan, for this jail, does the opposite of those things. For $69 million dollars, and given what I’ve read on campaign websites of council members, Lynnwood City Council should read their own campaign proimses. And do better. Vote no. Please.

  18. Lynnwood wouldn’t need more jail space if money were invested in community support, educational opportunities, and mental health services.

  19. Lynwood needs preventative and rehab programs not jails. Lynwood needs to invest in community support, educational opportunities, mental health services and treat addiction like a disease with proper medical rehabilitation programs. Racism is a public health epidemic at the heart of our broken criminal justice system. We owe it to our ancestors past present and future to invest and create healthy communities through restorative justice. Not by building more jails.

    1. As is usually the case, follow the money… Who benefits from outsourcing jail beds? Lynnwood City Council will give a false sense of security to people and businesses moving here. Putting a priority on an inflated cost and oversized incarceration facility speaks volumes as to what is important to Lynnwood leaders. Thanks to all who spoke out against this. We need more voices from those who see the big picture.

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