The men and women who live or work in the red-brick tower with slits for windows in downtown Kansas City don’t often generate much public sympathy.
Yet their stories of life inside the Jackson County jail are sometimes horrific.
Inmates and their families complain of crowding, broken plumbing, grime and fear of spending even a short amount of time within a facility where there is no assurance of safety. Assaults occur in areas where guards and cameras can’t see. The baddest of the bad have sometimes roamed freely to commit sexual assaults and beatings in the middle of the night.
“They don’t deserve to be treated like a dog or something,” said Tina Rogers, the mother of a former inmate.
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Guards feel unsafe, are understaffed and have less training than sworn law enforcement officers. The Star’s review of sheriff’s department reports for the first nine months of last year found incident after incident of low-paid corrections officers assaulted, spit on or sexually harassed by inmates.
“Our numbers have shot through the roof,” Sheriff Mike Sharp said. His deputies investigated 181 assaults against guards and inmates last year, compared with 107 in 2015.
And then there’s the jail’s state of disrepair. Black mold and plumbing backups were frequently cited in federal lawsuits, letters from former inmates and in county health inspection records reviewed by The Star.
“I thought it was pretty disgusting,” said Lisa Pelofsky, a former Kansas City police commissioner who has been inside to review conditions and helped write a 2015 task force report on the need for jail improvements.
Reports of brutality, filth and incompetence have sparked multiple investigations and no shortage of controversy since the FBI started looking into reports of guards abusing prisoners two years ago.
What the parade of negative headlines hasn’t provoked so far is a broad public discussion of how to address issues of overcrowding, security and physical decay of the 3-decades-old Jackson County Detention Center.
Some say that discussion can’t wait any longer. The options:
▪ Build a new regional jail that would be more secure and hospitable for guards and inmates alike, while at the same time being more cost efficient.
▪ Renovate and expand the current facility.
▪ Perform cheaper fixes and keep it the same size, but continue to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars settling lawsuits filed by former inmates with claims that they were subject to cruel and unusual punishment.
One thing is clear: The solution won’t be cheap.
County Executive Frank White, who runs the jail, and the county Legislature, which controls the budget, are hesitant to signal to taxpayers that such a costly choice may lie ahead in the near future, much less signal a preference.
Voters might not be eager to pay more in taxes to house criminals they believe deserve to be in jail, even though 81 percent of the inmates are awaiting trial and presumed to be innocent until proven guilty.
Replacing the detention center with a new jail could cost $200 million to $300 million. And a major redo of Jackson County’s 754-bed facility could be upward of $100 million, if projects in other parts of the country are any guide, and still not address space concerns.
That’s a ton of money by anyone’s standards, but especially for a county government that worries about much smaller amounts, such as the loss in a couple years of an annual $3 million payment from the state to support the Truman Sports Complex.
Most county elected officials seem hesitant to talk publicly about the need for a new jail before twin evaluations of the jail and its operations are completed this summer. Seven of the nine legislators did not respond to The Star’s emailed invitation to comment for this article, and White would issue only a written statement.
But in interviews, the county’s three top law enforcement officials said it’s clear to them that something has to be done about the Jackson County Detention Center, and sooner rather than later.
“We have to look at an expansion of the jail or a new jail,” said County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, who thinks many of the jail’s problems stem from overcrowding and lack of maintenance.
“It’s inevitable,” said John Torrence, presiding judge for Jackson County Circuit Court. “We needed a bigger jail the day that one opened.”
Sharp was adamant: “We need a state-of-the-art, modern facility.”
‘No quick and easy fixes’
Pelofsky says the county deserves credit for attempting to address issues raised in the 2015 report, such as the need for added medical screening, increased pay for guards and making needed repairs.
In the past year, the county spent around $3 million replacing 400 cell doors, many of which wouldn’t lock. The jail also added another 200 security cameras and upgraded some of the plumbing, according to White.
The county has also hired five senior staffers with expertise in managing correctional facilities and is taking steps to regain accreditation. No outside agencies have inspected the jail since the county let accreditation lapse two decades ago. Missouri has no standards for local jails and thus no inspection regimen.
But despite the improvements White cited, he acknowledges that problems remain.
“There are no quick and easy fixes for these challenges,” he said in the prepared statement.
While supportive of the county’s effort, some in the community want to see more progress.
“We have very, very grave concerns about the conditions and quite frankly the county’s response,” said attorney Clinton Adams, who raised the issue with a group of key African-American community leaders known as the Urban Summit. “People waiting for trial, and people sentenced and awaiting transfer (to prison) should at least be safe, in a healthy environment, and that does not appear to be the case.”
He and others have been frustrated by what appears to be county government’s seeming reluctance to have a more open public discussion of the issue as officials discuss it in private.
Recently, the Legislature refused to let the public listen in on the progress report from consultants the county hired to review jail operations.
Only when the consultants have fulfilled their $300,000 contract and delivered a final report, possibly this summer, will the document be made public, a county spokeswoman said. A separate, $224,000 evaluation of the building’s condition itself is also ongoing.
White’s office has been no more forthcoming providing information about its own internal review. The county’s chief lawyer, who reports to White, refuses to release that completed report on the security lapses that made it possible for two women held on municipal charges to be raped last August, allegedly by inmates held on far more serious charges, including murder.
In denying The Star’s open records request for the findings of the $140,000 review by the Graves Garrett law firm, County Counselor W. Stephen Nixon cited an exemption for attorney-client privilege.
According to billing receipts obtained by the newspaper, the bulk of the research for that review was done prior to the county paying a $275,000 settlement to one of the women raped last August, whose attacker now faces charges for sexual assault. Criminal charges have yet to be filed in the other case in which civil litigation is also possible.
History of neglect
Jackson County has a long history of neglect when it comes to incarceration. In only 12 of the past 45 years has the county’s Corrections Department been free from federal judicial oversight.
The nine-story Jackson County Detention Center opened in 1984 to satisfy a judge’s demands that the county take better care of prisoners. It replaced the antiquated jail that operated for more than 40 years on the top floors of the downtown courthouse.
That old jail was cold in the winter and broiling in the summer because, unlike the rest of the courthouse, it wasn’t air conditioned. And as it became increasingly crowded in the 1960s, with 500 inmates living in a space meant for 300, that jail became more broken down, filthy and beset by violence.
“County jail’s horror told,” The Star’s headline shrieked when Sheriff Arvid “Hippo” Owsley reported in 1967 on a growing number of inmate-on-inmate beatings and sexual assaults. Back then, the sheriff ran the jail yet was at the mercy of the three-member county “court” for funding.
Owsley blamed many of the jail’s troubles on money woes and famously flew the American flag upside down atop the courthouse as a distress signal to protest the stinginess of the panel that controlled jail finances before the Legislature was created.
“For the welfare of the prisoners as well as in the best interests of the community,” he believed, the responsibility for running the jail should be turned over to the elected officials who controlled the funding.
That’s exactly what happened in 1973, when the government changed to its current form. County Executive George Lehr and the Legislature took charge of a jail that a class-action lawsuit claimed was “shocking” and “dehumanizing,” with broken toilets, rats and dirty mattresses.
Yet even under new jailers, the old jail lagged in financial support. Concerns about safety and hygiene were addressed only after a federal court ordered improvements in the 1970s, but the courthouse jail was still too small and run down.
The red-brick facility built a block away to replace it was a vast improvement, everyone agreed. But while the current jail was state-of-the-art for its time, built at a cost of $23 million (roughly equal to $74 million today), it was cramped from the start.
Worried that voters wouldn’t want to pay for a larger jail (it took two tries to pass the bond issue), county officials added only enough beds to accommodate the number of people held in the overcrowded old jail.
No cushion was built in for area population growth, nor had planners anticipated the nationwide get-tough-on-crime effort that drove up the need for more jail and prison space.
On an average night, well over 600 inmates bunked in a jail designed to hold 520.
At the request of plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit, yet another federal judge stepped in two years after the detention center opened and dictated limits on the number of people who could be locked up.
To comply with Judge Dean Whipple’s order, the county paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to farm out detainees to other county jails. Many times, the detention center still went over the inmate limit, and the county had to pay fines.
With Whipple’s approval, the county added space for 240 more beds by building a squat jail annex on the same block as the tower at a cost of what would be $28 million in today’s dollars.
The annex opened in 1999, and in 2007 court oversight ended after then newly elected County Executive Mike Sanders argued that the county had successfully solved the overcrowding issue and was capable of running the jail without a minder.
“The court certainly hopes that they are up to the task,” Judge Whipple wrote in his court order ending the case.
Now 10 years later, the feds are again measuring how well the county is managing the detention center.
The FBI acknowledged in 2015 that it was investigating what appeared to be a pattern of physical abuse of prisoners by corrections officers. Five former guards have since been indicted for allegedly beating or stomping on prisoners held in restraints.
So far, the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division has taken no public steps to begin a full-scale investigation of jail conditions and operations. Typically, the government would notify the county ahead of time, but no such letter has been received, a county spokeswoman said.
Yet the specter of renewed federal restrictions continues to hang over county government as officials consider what to do about the jail.
Concerns about potential federal mandates, however, are not the only motivation. Nor is the mounting cost of litigation from former inmates and their families.
Second District At-large Legislator Crystal Williams of Kansas City said the county has a duty to provide detainees and guards alike a secure and sanitary jail where they can feel safe and are well cared for, despite her concern that the state doesn’t pay its fair share to underwrite operations.
“I hear from inmates, I hear from their families,” she said. “This is my No. 1 priority right now.”
It’s also at or near the top of Legislator Tony Miller’s list of priorities. A defense attorney and former prosecutor, Miller was aware of some of the jail’s shortcomings even before he was elected in 2014. But his eyes have been opened by what he’s learned since then and is awaiting the consultants’ reports before deciding what course to set.
“I’m just hoping to learn what exactly needs to be done and when,” said Miller, who lives in Lee’s Summit and represents the 3rd District at-large.
Proponents of a larger jail say it would help eliminate crowding, increase safety and free judges and prosecutors of having to factor jail space into their decisions on who should be kept locked up and who can safely be set free without having to pay an appearance bond.
To alleviate crowding, each weekday afternoon at 1:30, prisoners in chains are walked into a courtroom in the jail complex at the Albert Riederer Community Justice Complex for what’s informally called the population control docket.
“Over the last 25-30 years, the county has relied on the courts to deal with their problem,” Judge Torrence said. “It’s not our jail, it’s the county’s.”
There’s no set formula that would guide how big a new Jackson County jail should be. But the county jails in comparable cities with similar crime patterns tend to be twice as large or more.
Locally, even the Johnson County jail has, with 1,112 beds, more capacity than Jackson County, which has space for 754 inmates held on state charges and 250 to 300 detainees being held on municipal charges under contract in separate facilities for Kansas City.
Yet Johnson County has 20 percent fewer residents and far less crime.
As for what a new jail would look like, it would likely bear little resemblance to the current one, said Martin Berglund, an Omaha, Neb.-based architect for DLR Group, which has designed more than 100 jails across the country.
Modern jails are spread out on a single level, allowing for more direct supervision of inmates; are filled with natural light; and incorporate color and softer, sound-absorbing materials like wood and carpet.
“The big shift has been in the form of the environment,” Berglund said. “Trying to provide more of a normative environment that is less stressful for inmates and staff.”
In other words, exactly the opposite of the nine-story, 33-year-old Jackson County Detention Center.