A sense of urgency has finally descended on Jackson County when it comes to dangerous conditions inside the downtown jail.
But it has taken way, way too long.
On Thursday, a consultant told county legislators that staffing levels inside the jail were so low that they constituted an emergency.
“It is a crisis situation,” jail consultant Jim Rowenhorst said.
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On Tuesday, staffing levels had dropped so precipitously that administrators took the unusual step of shutting down programs, visitation and intake activities to move more guards to prison floors.
County officials described staff turnover rates topping 40 percent — a percentage so high that Rowenhorst said it was impossible to operate a competent jail. Pay for guards was said to be so low as to make it difficult for the jail to compete with fast-food restaurants in Johnson County.
Rowenhorst said he has been told that at times, no more than a single corrections officer is stationed on floors with more than 150 inmates. Those inmates, he said, are effectively running the jail while guards often look on helplessly.
Inmates are in danger. So are guards. In fact, Rowenhorst said jail officials should consider shutting down a floor of the jail to ease the guard crunch. But that, of course, would mean that officials would have to find somewhere else to house inmates. As of Thursday, no alternative was at hand.
What took the county so long to come to these realizations is especially troubling and frankly inexcusable. An inmate died last month. Prisoners have been raped. A recent FBI raid uncovered drugs, cellphones and other contraband in the jail population. Numerous reports describing human waste seeping through ceilings and other dangerous conditions have been issued.
Jackson County Sheriff Mike Sharp said he was perplexed about why a sense of urgency has proved so elusive.
“It boggles my mind how it got to this place,” he said. “I can’t get my hands around it.”
The good news? That appears to be changing. With one glaring exception, county leaders appear committed to finding solutions and finding them fast. Legislature chairman Scott Burnett asked for a response to a series of quick-action steps to free up guards. Among them: leasing temporary cells to ease overcrowding and limiting visitation hours.
Another option: Find ways to use money now spent on overtime pay to hire more guards. A longer-term solution is raising pay for guards from the current paltry $12.60 an hour starting pay to something in the $17-$20 an hour range. Veteran legislator Dennis Waits acknowledged the obvious: That could mean cuts to other programs or even a tax increase.
But that’s exactly what’s needed. If the county fails to act, the federal government may step in and force its hand. Or lawsuits could force the county to spend money on settlements that it should be spending on improved jail conditions.
The one glaring exception Thursday was the surprising absence of County Executive Frank White. A spokeswoman said White couldn’t attend the emergency session because of prior “community engagements,” which she couldn’t specify. The jail is White’s responsibility more than anyone else’s. His absence was troubling especially because White hasn’t shown an inclination to act quickly and decisively to fix a jail in crisis.
White was known for coming through in the clutch when he played for the Royals. Right now, he’s doing little more than warming the bench when it comes to the biggest crisis to face Jackson County in years.
He needs to get his head in the game.