The Jackson County jail is in crisis because it cannot retain enough corrections officers to control a dangerous situation, a consultant told county legislators in a special meeting Thursday.
The consultant from CRA Inc. did not even wait to finish writing his report to bring the jail problems to public light.
“It is now a crisis situation,” Jim Rowenhorst told the legislators. “This should be addressed as quickly as possible.”
The jail has been the subject of intense scrutiny since it was learned in 2015 that the FBI was stepping in to investigate mistreatment of inmates by guards. The Star has reported that the county has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in taxpayer money to settle claims of abuse.
But the picture painted Thursday is one of an immediate situation that is dangerous for both inmates and guards.
The consultant spoke of a time when one corrections officer was in charge of 130 inmates, and when two corrections officers were overseeing 190 inmates. The county last year raised wages to $12.60 an hour, but that is not enough to attract sufficient guard applicants or stanch a 40 percent turnover rate. The jail is running below minimum staffing.
John Torrence, presiding judge of the Jackson County Circuit Court, said the situation has become so bad over the past six months that judges and lawyers cannot count on defendants getting to court for legal proceedings because there is no one to escort them to the courthouse.
Public defenders, particularly women, he said, are “frightened to death” to meet with their clients in the jail because there is no one to respond if they have to push the emergency button in the visitation rooms.
Torrence called the situation at the jail “dysfunctional” and “immoral.”
Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker called the situation “alarming.”
Jackson County Sheriff Mike Sharp complained to the legislators that there does not seem to be a sense of urgency to address the situation.
“It boggles my mind how it got to this place,” Sharp said.
A pricey fix
Legislators generally agreed that something must be done, and sooner rather than later. That may include finding money fast to increase guard wages, something that could cost millions. Or maybe the county could hire moonlighting corrections officers from other jurisdictions. Or the jail could hire a private transportation service to transport inmates. Or it could cut visitation hours in half to free up staff for the housing floors.
“I don’t know what it’s going to take to get these people hired,” said Legislator Denny Waits. “...That may mean some cuts in places. It may mean some tax increases or revenue increases somewhere.”
Jackson County Executive Frank White did not attend Thursday’s meeting. But Scott Burnett, who is chairman of the Legislature, said White attended part of an hours-long meeting Wednesday with Burnett, Baker and Sharp.
White released a statement about the legislative meeting late Thursday: “I am encouraged by today’s public discussion in an effort to make progress and look forward to reviewing the auditor’s final report.
“Improving conditions at the jail is my top priority and I am not taking this situation lightly,” he added. “...This problem did not happen overnight and it will not be fixed overnight.”
The legislature hired CRA in February for $195,000 to look at jail operations. Rowenhorst, who has visited four times since then, said the initial concern was living conditions at the jail.
“Some of these conditions were pretty atrocious,” he said, adding that blocked toilets and leaking human waste were among the biggest problems. But Rowenhorst said the county Department of Corrections had made great improvement in that area.
Another problem was with inmates’ mattresses, which are sealed to be easily wiped and sanitized. But many of them were so badly cracked there was no way to sanitize them. Only 50 of the old mattresses were salvageable. There was also a shortage of cleaning supplies at the jail. Rowenhorst said those problems have also seen great improvement.
Gary Panethiere, the county’s chief operating officer, said the county had also allocated $2.8 million to repair 488 sliding cell doors.
But the most stubborn problem at the jail remains staffing. The facility at 13th and Cherry streets has 1,050 beds.
Rowenhorst said he visited a floor of the jail with 190 inmates in eight housing units that was supervised by just two corrections officers. He has been told of another situation where one officer was in charge of more than 130 inmates.
“There is no doubt (the inmates) are running the housing units,” Rowenhorst said.
Waits said: “It just takes one to overthrow someone, and then you’ve got a real mess.”
Legislator Greg Grounds noted that many of the people held in the jail have not been convicted of a crime and don’t deserve to be subjected to dangerous situations.
Staffing has been stretched so thin that on Tuesday, the jail temporarily canceled visitation and closed the lobby so those officers could be deployed elsewhere in the jail.
The staffing situation has been affected by losing guards accused of physical or sexual abuse of inmates. In April this year, four former guards at the jail were indicted by a federal grand jury in connection with the 2015 beating of an inmate, allegedly in retaliation for a previous incident. Those cases are pending.
“There are good people working at the jail, and they deserve better than what they’re getting,” said Sharp. “We’ve got some bad people there, and we’re attempting to weed them out.”
It takes a decent wage, along with good working conditions, to recruit and retain jail staff. A citizen task force appointed by former County Executive Mike Sanders recommended higher pay for guards who were underpaid and overworked.
Panethiere said jail pay was raised in 2016 from $11.23 an hour to $12.60. Also, a career path was created to allow corrections officers to advance with more pay. Training requirements were also increased, and the jail was set on a path toward regaining accreditation.
But turnover remains a problem. Panethiere said it was 45 percent in 2015 but still is trending at about 40 percent.
Dennis Dumovich, human resources director for Jackson County, said 2016 data from the Mid-America Regional Council indicate average starting pay for a corrections officer in the metro area is $17 an hour.
“We are woefully behind,” said Dumovich.
Asked by Grounds what it would cost for Jackson County to get to that level, Panethiere estimated $5 million more a year.
CRA’s final report is due by the end of the month, as is a separate consultant’s report from HOK Inc. to evaluate the 33-year-old jail.
Baker, Sharp and Torrence have all said Jackson County needs a new, bigger jail. That could cost $250 million to $300 million, Waits said.
Rowenhorst cautioned that a decision to build a new jail should be made with careful deliberation and not in haste.
The question now, he said, is, “What are you going to do tomorrow?”