Surely, when former Kansas City Police Chief Darryl Forté threw his hat into the ring to be the interim Jackson County sheriff, he knew this question would follow.
Inevitably, he would be asked how he would address the deplorable health and safety conditions at the Jackson County Detention Center.
Forté might have been hoping to have a little more time to settle into the job. But the problems at the jail certainly aren’t new. And Forté led Kansas City’s police department for nearly six years, so the jail is not unfamiliar to him.
“But again, I don’t have any comment on something I haven’t looked at nor have I paid attention to up until this point,” he told The Star.
Forté will serve in this role for the rest of the year, but whoever wins the November election will need to have a clear vision for the jail. And if Forté is serious about wanting the job, he must show leadership on this issue now.
Jackson County voters will decide in August whether the sheriff should have responsibility for the jail.
Currently, the buck stops with County Executive Frank White. But White has shown little interest in taking action, allowing horrific and dangerous conditions to continue to deteriorate.
The jail’s problems are so ingrained and longstanding that last week’s damning grand jury report was just one more desperate plea for a sense of urgency, a call that has long gone unanswered. The report undercut an often-heard excuse that funding is a primary issue. The lengthy assessment also gave credence to the idea that the dismissive attitudes of county officials are stalling chances for reform.
The report said the county executive’s chief of staff was “condescending and derisive” about the grand jury’s efforts to investigate problems such as filthy cell conditions and issues that have included smuggled cellphones that were used by inmates to order the murders of key witnesses in criminal cases.
It is a stunning indictment. The problems at the jail are so severe that innocent people have died.
Moreover, overcrowding has been an issue for more than 30 years. And at this point, a parade of new managers and directors alone will not solve all the problems. The jail simply is not configured to ensure the security of inmates, staff, attorneys and other visitors.
Building a new jail is paramount to public safety. Whomever voters entrust with management authority must immediately begin building public support for a new jail and considering options for financing the project. Continued delays are not an option, and White, county legislators and the sheriff should commit to working together to develop a plan for a new jail by the end of the year.
We called for federal intervention last fall when a corrections officer was severely beaten after an attack by an inmate at the jail. And at this rate, it may well take heavy hand of the federal government to spur action locally.
Each day that no one steps up to confront the problems of the detention center is another day that a corrections officer, an inmate or a visitor could be physically harmed or even killed in Jackson County’s jail.