Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker declined Jackson County Executive Frank White’s invitation to sit on a newly formed jail task force. She reconsidered her participation, she said in a letter to White on Monday, after last week’s brutal assault on a Jackson County corrections officer.
The guard was hospitalized in critical condition after an inmate beat him with a plastic cone in the county detention center, according to police. No one came to his aid for nearly eight minutes in a facility that is often understaffed due to high turnover. His condition had improved Monday.
“Spending more time to further study the overcrowded and unsafe conditions at the detention center is simply inappropriate,” Peters wrote in the letter dated Monday and released late in the afternoon.
“I would encourage you to talk to and work closely with the (county) Legislature in taking immediate steps and laying the groundwork for future improvements, including the possibility of a new jail.”
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White released a statement Monday evening.
“While I am disappointed that the County Prosecutor chose to quit the Jail Task Force, I want to make sure that everyone knows that I remain committed to involving the community in this process,” he said. “I firmly believe that the people of Jackson County deserve, and we need, their input as we move forward.
“The work of this task force goes well beyond the specifics of any one incident in our jail, or quite frankly, whether a new jail is ultimately needed.”
White formed the panel two weeks ago and gave its 14 members six months to produce a report on whether to build a new jail or renovate the old one.
Other county officials he invited to serve on the panel included Sheriff Mike Sharp; Scott Burnett, chairman of the county legislature; and John Torrence, presiding judge of Jackson County Circuit Court.
The panel’s first duties include holding a series of public forums and hiring another consultant. Two other consultants already filed reports earlier this year.
In her letter to White, Peters said the time for action is now after Wednesday’s beating.
“It’s clear that action is required immediately,” she wrote. “Community input may be helpful in guiding your staff related to long-term solutions. But action is required now to fix the immediate problems at the jail.”
Some members of the county legislature had previously criticized White’s intention to form the new study group after two consultants already recommended a number of actions to address staffing and security issues.
“We don’t need more studies,” Legislator Dennis Waits said the day White publicly announced his intentions to form the second jail task force since 2015.
He and others had been critical of White for what they saw as a lack of urgency in addressing the recommendations of the consultant reports.
If staffing is such an issue that it puts guards and inmates in danger, one of the consultants said, then close off part of the jail until manpower levels improve by paying new hires a better wage.
The other consultant recommended replacing the multi-story detention center with a modern and more secure single-level jail.
Legislators saw those reports as road maps for the future, while White signaled that the reports were only starting points by appointing the new jail task force.
In announcing the task force, White said conditions at the jail had improved. And while he wasn’t ruling out construction of a new jail at a cost of perhaps $200 million or more, he wanted his new task force to look at a broad array of issues.
Since most of the roughly 1,000 inmates in the jail complex are awaiting trial on state and municipal charges, White suggested the task force consider “alternatives to incarceration,” such as expansion of the house arrest program for non-violent inmates who cannot afford to make bail.
Peters did not dismiss White’s concerns about the need for community input with regard to long-term solutions at the detention center. She added that her office will continue to evaluate bonding policies that can affect jail crowding and will offer any assistance White needs to assist with management of the jail and planning for a new one.