Jackson County hopes to double or triple the number of inmates on house arrest as one way to compensate for a shortage of guards to adequately guard prisoners at the county detention center, officials said Monday.
By adding two employees to the house-arrest program, the county corrections department could monitor as many as 200 to 300 pre-trial inmates on ankle bracelets, compared to the 100 now in the program on any particular day.
That reduction in the number of inmates in a jail that now houses 944 each night on average would improve the ratio of guards to inmates, officials believe.
But it is only one of several measures County Executive Frank White has authorized to address dangerous staffing shortages as he and the county legislature consider long-term, costly solutions. Namely, a sizable pay raise for corrections officers whose wages are the lowest in their field in the metro area.
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Among the other stopgap measure now being implemented to free up corrections officers from other duties so they can watch over detainees in their housing units:
▪ Shorter visiting hours for prisoners during the week, and only one family visit per week, rather than the two now allowed. Also, no visits on weekends when staffing is at its lowest. A video visitation system set to begin in the fall will further reduce the need for guards to leave the jail’s housing units.
▪ Better transportation scheduling for doctor visits, transport of inmates to state prison and fewer last-minute requests by prosecutors to have inmates transported to the courthouses in Kansas City and Independence.
▪ Administrative staff and caseworkers with experience as guards will be asked to fill corrections officers’ shifts when necessary.
▪ Detainees’ recreation time on the building’s top floor will be cut back when staffing levels are low.
Scott Burnett, this year’s chairman of the legislature, had asked White to put forward a list of short-term solutions to address what a consultant told legislators on Aug. 3 had become a dangerous lack of supervision within the eight-story jail downtown.
The consultant from CRA Inc. of Vienna, Va., said staff shortages are at a crisis stage with as few as two guards overseeing as many as 190 detainees on a single floor at times.
The root of the problem, he said, was low pay, which leads to turnover rates of 40 percent or more. And high turnover snowballs. Guards forced to cover open shifts by working 16-hour days, which is common, tend to burn out and quit their jobs.
White said recent news reports out of the Kansas prison system and elsewhere suggest that Jackson County’s problem retaining guards is not unique.
“Everyone is dealing with staffing issues,” White said.
But he said that is not to minimize the issue at the jail he oversees. Although the county raised starting wages to $12.60 an hour last year, guard pay lags far behind the rates paid by other jails in the region.
Starting pay is $18 an hour for jailers in Wyandotte County and $17.50 in Johnson County. One reason for the difference is that those jailers are sworn sheriff’s deputies, whereas Jackson County jailers have less training.
Still, pay at the Jackson County jail is even lower, the county says, than the starting pay of $14 an hour for airport screeners, whose job is far less dangerous.
Pay is one of the issues White plans to address when he returns to the legislature on Sept. 5 with a long-term plan for addressing staffing concerns.
Every $1 an hour increase in pay could cost county taxpayers $815,000 a year, the county’s human resources department estimates.
CRA’s audit of the jail is expected before that Sept. 5 meeting and will raise a number of concerns about jail operations.
Yet when 50 out of 278 authorized corrections officers positions go unfilled, staffing is the issue that drives many others.
Earlier this month, the presiding judge of the Jackson County Circuit Court said the staffing situation was so bad that judges and lawyers cannot count on defendants getting to court for legal proceedings because there is no one to escort them to the courthouse.
He said public defenders are “frightened to death” to meet with clients in the jail if there is no one to respond if they push the emergency button in the visitation rooms.