County legislators on Tuesday accused Jackson County Executive Frank White of failure to adequately address ongoing security issues at the county jail.
In their first meeting since an inmate’s brutal attack on a jail guard last week, some legislators vented their frustrations at White and the people he has running the jail.
Most who spoke up questioned whether White was working quickly enough to make the jail safer in the short term as a long-term solution is considered.
“There needs to be specific action to see that that never happens again,” Alfred Jordan said.
Others expressed concern that planning for a new jail would be delayed by White’s recent formation of a new study group after two consultant reports have already detailed the jail’s shortcomings and suggested plans of action.
“We’ve got a jail in crisis,” Dennis Waits said. “I think this is the wrong approach.”
County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker had similar concerns when she wrote White on Monday to say she would decline to serve on the jail task force.
Legislator Crystal Williams said someone needs to be held accountable.
As Corrections Director Joe Piccinini looked on from the audience seating area, Williams asked White why Piccinini and his management team haven’t been replaced considering the number of security breakdowns in the two years since Piccinini took over.
The list includes female and male detainees being sexually assaulted by other inmates, multiple corrections officers being beaten and at least one woman dying in custody after family members said she received inadequate medical care.
Without citing those particulars or singling out Piccinini by name, Williams said at any other organization heads would roll after so much bad news.
“It’s maddening,” she said. “In any other universe you would have a different management team.”
White defended his management team, saying he and his staff have worked hard to fix problems at the jail and that they inherited an operation that was already suffering from neglect when he took office in early 2016.
“I have complete confidence in the people we have over there,” White said.
On Monday, Piccinini said in a memo to the nine legislators that jail staff would get refresher training on how to manage inmates and how to better protect themselves after last week’s attack that critically injured a guard.
He said additional security measures might also be taken in the housing unit where the attack occurred and has ordered an investigation of the attack.
White said his staff is working through a list of recommended improvements to fix the buildings in the jail complex, which includes the Jackson County Detention Center, jail annex, the Regional Correctional Center and a booking area for municipal inmates.
Cell doors have been replaced, plumbing fixed and mattresses replaced.
He acknowledged that his administration is still struggling with the longstanding issue of inadequate staffing. Sparse supervision has been a factor in most of the assaults on guards and inmates that have made headlines.
Piccinini told legislators that he didn’t know how many guards were on duty the night of last week’s attack. Nearly eight minutes passed before help arrived after a guard was attacked in a housing unit in the Regional Correctional Center.
He said the guard had access to equipment from which he could summon help, but he was attacked from behind and knocked out. He said the jail does not have enough staff to monitor all the video cameras so no one saw it occurring on a monitor.
The jail is never at full staffing because of high turnover. Not enough people are willing to fill jobs with $12.60-an-hour starting pay and working conditions that can be tough.
Guards are forced to work overtime to fill in for the 30 or more positions that go unfilled at any one time. Eventually they tire of the long hours and quit, and the cycle continues.
White has proposed boosting the starting pay to $15 an hour at the first of the year, which he says should help. But legislators said other solutions might include using sheriff’s deputies to free up guards who now transport inmates to and from their court appearances.
The county also staffs the Regional Correctional Facility, which was opened under contract with Kansas City several years ago to house inmates serving time or awaiting trial on municipal charges.
The deal made sense at the time, but the county is now losing money on it and is trying to renegotiate the contract. If no agreement is reached, those corrections officers could be reassigned to the main jail tower, White said. The city would have to find somewhere else to house its inmates.
He also countered Waits’ criticism that the jail task force will create an unnecessary delay in planning for a facility to replace the 34-year-old detention center. While that panel has six months to recommend how big a new jail should be, or whether to simply renovate the existing one, he said the legislature need not wait that long to act.
If they want to take the issue to voters in April, that’s the legislature’s call, he said.
“There’s no delay here at all,” he said.
In the end, no decisions were made at Tuesday’s meeting. But several legislators said they appreciated the chance to openly discuss the issue with White after weeks of political combat related to jail issues.
Among them was Tony Miller, who said he disagreed with The Kansas City Star editorial board’s recent editorial calling for federal intervention to improve jail conditions.
“We have to solve this,” Miller said. “No one is going to solve this but us.”