Jackson County’s three top law enforcement officials all think Jackson County needs a new and bigger jail to replace the crowded, decaying one that’s been beset with security and sanitation issues.
But County Executive Frank White is not there yet.
He told The Star’s Editorial Board on Tuesday that he won’t consider spending what could be hundreds of millions of dollars on a new detention center until consultants hired by the county Legislature issue their reports in August.
The jail has problems, he said, but he’s not sure the current 1,050-bed facility is too small, despite what Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, Sheriff Mike Sharp and presiding Judge John Torrence told The Star recently.
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With a larger jail, the tendency would be to incarcerate people who might be better off on house arrest.
“I believe you can build a facility for 5,000 beds and fill it up,” he said.
For now, White said, his focus is on making repairs to the 33-year-old main tower and nearly 18-year-old annex, as well as improving training and working conditions for correctional officers.
Even if the decision is made to build a new jail, it would take years for it to open, and the current facility cannot be allowed to continue falling apart.
“I think we’re on the right road,” White said, “to improve things that were overlooked in the past.”
Years of budget skimping left the jail with cells that would not lock, plumbing prone to sewage backups and high turnover among its underpaid and overworked correctional officers.
Over the past year and a half, White and the Legislature committed to higher wages, increased training and long-ignored building fixes. White said the county is spending $3.5 million this year to correct deficiencies.
A program was started to add 120 hours of training to the 80 hours that correctional officers normally receive. White said those and other steps are aimed at helping the detention center regain by 2020 the accreditation it lost 20 years ago.
“I want to improve things,” he said. “I’m not kicking the can down the road at all with the jail.”
White said he inherited many of the problems from previous administrations, but it was on his watch that two women held on municipal charges were raped by inmates awaiting trial for violent felonies.
Those crimes in late August 2016 prompted the Legislature to hire the consultants now evaluating the jail. The legislature in December authorized spending up to $300,000 for a performance audit, but ultimately signed a contract for $195,000 two months later.
Another $224,000 was authorized for an evaluation of the facility.
White said the safety of inmates and correctional officers is among his foremost concerns.
But “things happen in a jail,” he said.
“When you’re in a room with 30 inmates and one inmate decides to take a swing at another one, you can’t control that. We react to it.”
Former Lee’s Summit Police Chief Joe Piccinini told the Editorial Board that he has been working to curb violence since taking charge of the corrections department in mid-2015.
One of his first steps was to require staffers to call the sheriff’s department whenever an inmate assaults another detainee, spits on a guard or commits another crime. Previously that wasn’t always done.
“They can’t think they are getting away with these things,” Piccinini said, “and the corrections officers, who are oftentimes the victim, need to see that something is being done.”