Almost two years to the day after a jail task force issued a report and disbanded, Jackson County Executive Frank White on Tuesday appointed another committee to study what’s wrong with the Jackson County jail and recommend whether to build a new jail or make do with the old one.
The announcement came as White is under increased pressure from the Jackson County Legislature to move forward on an issue that has grown increasingly dire and embarrassing since jumping into the headlines in the summer of 2015.
And some aren’t necessarily pleased with this move, either.
“We don’t need more studies,” Legislator Dennis Waits said Monday when White first publicly announced his plans for a new committee.
White thinks otherwise.
And less than 24 hours after that exchange, at his invitation, the news media and several members of the new jail task force — several of whom were on the last one — crowded into a small room in the basement of the downtown courthouse. There White announced that he expects a report from the group in six months, after it conducts public meetings and works with a consultant.
White also sought to dispel that notion that he is opposed to replacing the Jackson County Detention Center with a state-of-the-art facility.
“I want to make clear I’m not opposed to a new jail,” he said. “But I’ve yet to be convinced that we need a bigger jail.”
One of the new task force’s jobs, he said, will be to determine whether there are better ways to ease crowding in the current jail than merely adding beds. Most of the roughly 1,000 inmates in the jail complex are awaiting trial. “Alternatives to incarceration” should be considered, White suggested.
Among those alternatives might be expansion of the house arrest program, said John Torrence, presiding judge of Jackson County Circuit Court and one of seven public officials on the 14-member panel.
The other public officials: Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker; Sheriff Mike Sharp; Scott Burnett, chairman of the county legislature; Kansas City Councilwoman Alissia Canady; state Rep. Brandon Ellington; and Mike Schumacher, a Kansas City assistant city manager.
Other committee members are lawyer and former county legislator Carol Coe; Freedom Inc. President Gayle Holliday; Truman Medical Center’s chief community relations officer, Niki Lee Donawa; and four of the five members of that first jail task force: former Kansas City Councilman Alvin Brooks; Karen Curls, social sciences chair at Metropolitan Community College; former police board chair Lisa Pelofsky; and John Fierro, president and CEO of the Mattie Rhodes Center. Fierro and Holliday are co- chairs.
Former County Executive Mike Sanders formed the first task force in August 2015 after an FBI investigation of guards using excessive force on prisoners.
That committee had three months to finish its work and issued a report raising concerns about underpaid corrections officers who were stressed out from having to work overtime. Shortcomings in inmate health care services also were cited, among other issues.
But just as county officials were beginning to address those issues, the bad news only got worse. Inmates complained of backed-up plumbing and filthy conditions, and sued.
Federal authorities charged four guards with civil rights violations for the beating that prompted that FBI investigation. A surprise early-morning search this summer turned up cell phones, drugs and other contraband, leading to the arrest of corrections officers who allegedly smuggled in the material.
A year ago, security became a concern when two women were allegedly raped by male inmates who were able to roam one night because they had keys to cells.
Concerned about the conditions, legislators spent hundreds of thousands of dollars hiring consultants. They spent millions more replacing cell doors that wouldn’t lock and plumbing that didn’t work.
In September, two consultants issued reports that cited jail operations, poor sanitation and deteriorating buildings.
The head of the CRA Inc. team, Jim Rowenhorst, issued an urgent warning even before his report was written, saying understaffing had reached “a crisis situation” that put the lives of guards and inmates at risk. Perhaps some floors should be shut down until that was fixed, he said.
The Kansas City design firm HOK issued a failing grade for the physical condition of the jail complex. HOK gave the county two options:
▪ Renovate the jail at a cost of $150 million. But HOK said the project would take years to accomplish and still leave the county with an outdated facility.
▪ Build a state-of-the-art jail that might cost $180 million for the same number of beds, or an unspecified number of dollars more for an expanded facility.
A majority of county legislators saw the twin reports as a foundation for discussing a new jail. But only this week, two months after those reports were presented, did White take a public step forward.
The delay has frustrated some legislators, who perceive a lack of leadership by White. Two of the longest-serving legislators took separate steps to jump-start public discussion of a new jail.
Burnett, who represents a Kansas City district, has met weekly with county staffers and outside experts to discuss the county’s options. Waits, from Independence, introduced two ordinances to hire three legislative staffers: one to analyze the county’s finances, another to study issues like the jail and a third as a legislative spokesperson and public liaison.
White vetoed both of Waits’ proposals, and both vetoes were overridden.
At the time that the CRA and HOK reports were issued in early September, White recommended starting a master planning process.
“The goal is to help determine whether the county should renovate, expand, build new or do a combination of those things,” White said at the time.
Until Tuesday, his administration had not publicly explained what that process would entail.
White gave legislators a preview for the first time in late October when he shared a two-page internal memo from public works director Brian Gaddie that outlined a two-phase planning process.
It proposed formation of a jail task force. Gaddie suggested that the first phase, which he envisioned lasting up to five years, would address short-term needs to “enhance a safe and functional jail operation and facility.”
On Tuesday, White announced that the 2018 budget proposal he will unveil Wednesday calls for borrowing $16 million to make more fixes at the detention center. The budget also calls for upping guard pay to $15 an hour to reduce turnover.
The goal of phase two: construct that new jail or renovate the current one in such a way that either facility would last 30 to 50 years.