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.