Crime

Grand jury reports a filthy, crowded Jackson County jail. Where's the money going?

A Jackson County grand jury issued a scathing 71-page condemnation Friday of conditions and operations at the troubled Jackson County Detention Center.
A Jackson County grand jury issued a scathing 71-page condemnation Friday of conditions and operations at the troubled Jackson County Detention Center.

Operating behind closed doors for months, a Jackson County grand jury went public for the first time Friday, issuing a scathing 71-page report condemning conditions and operations at the troubled Jackson County Detention Center.

The facility in downtown Kansas City is so dangerous and dirty, the report said, that some inmates would rather plead guilty to the crimes they are charged with and go to state prison than await trial in Jackson County's jail.

"The complex of buildings that make up the jail, including the conditions and the manner in which inmates are treated and supervised, impacts our entire county's public safety," the report said.

Overcrowding leads to the early release of inmates awaiting trial on serious offenses, who go on to commit more crimes, according to the report. In one instance, a burglary suspect was released and murdered a witness to the crime.

Authorities told grand jurors that cell phones smuggled into the jail led to murders on the outside of witnesses to crimes who mistakenly felt they were out of danger because the defendants were behind bars.

Inmates fear for their safety because of a shortage of guards and poor access to emergency call buttons. the report said. Guards, too, are at risk for the same reasons.

"In addition, because the jail is not clean and is in disrepair," the report said, "it creates health risks to people in the jail and in this county as a whole."

As previously documented, living areas are infested with mice and insects, and some shower areas are covered with mold.

Overall, the document describes a mismanaged facility desperately in need of greater discipline in day-to-day operations and better financial accountability. In response to county officials who complained of not having enough money to meet the jail's needs, grand jurors questioned whether the $120 million in tax dollars expended running and maintaining the jail over the past five years was spent wisely.

The unprecedented report and investigation that spawned it comes as county officials are discussing whether to build a new jail. County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker requested the investigation, which was approved by the Jackson County Circuit Court.

The report is rich in detail, from which the grand jurors made broad and pointed conclusions.

Chief among them is that the jail's problems "stem from a systematic failure to plan and/or act to address its well-documented problems."

And the responsibility for those problems, the grand jurors said, falls on the jail's management and the county administration.

County Executive Frank White issued a statement late Friday that questioned the accuracy of some aspects of the report, but said his administration would use some of the information to "better our facilities and operations for this community."

Most of his statement, however, criticized Baker for issuing a report that he said was an unfair attack on him in furtherance of what he believes is Baker's aim to build a larger jail that would hold more prisoners.

"The Prosecuting Attorney is using this report as a political opportunity to point out decades-old problems of deferred maintenance and attribute them to the current administration," White said.

"The Prosecuting Attorney's report appears to be the product of both misinformation and a strong desire to incarcerate more people pre-trial. Widespread issues regarding facility conditions, staff retention and overcrowding persist at detention facilities nationwide. However, issuing redundant reports and finger pointing is not a solution."

Reaction on Twitter was swift. Jackson County legislator Tony Miller quoted from the report in support of a larger jail.

Fellow legislator Crystal Williams said, "This is what I've been raising so much hell about."

One of White's two opponents in this August's Democratic primary directed criticism at White without naming him.

"The Jail is in Crisis! Is this what leadership looks like?" Matthew T. Merryman tweeted.

The probe was conducted by two panels of grand jurors, the first of which began examining jail conditions and operations in secret last August.

After the first panel's term ran out in November, another group of 15 took over and wrote and signed the report, although their names were redacted.

The Star first revealed the existence of the investigation in February after learning of it through documents that showed the county counselor had hired an outside law firm to represent county officials who had been called to testify.

Of those witnesses, the grand jurors singled out White's chief of staff, Caleb Clifford, for criticism, saying he "was condescending and derisive of our task" during his testimony before them.

Clifford did not respond directly to that criticism, but said: "The community is tired of hearing us argue and point fingers back and forth while important issues go unresolved."

According to state statute, grand juries are authorized to investigate conditions at public buildings, but that is rarely done and there is no record of a grand jury inspecting the Jackson County Detention Center in recent years.

Indeed, no outside agencies inspect the jail, other than the county's own health department.

The grand jury investigation began as the Jackson County Legislature was being briefed publicly on the results of two audits conducted by hired consultants.

Reports of shocking brutality, filth and incompetence within the walls of the Jackson County Detention Center have sparked multiple investigations and no shortage of controversy.

In his report, one of those consultants from CRA Inc. of Vienna, Va., said sanitation at the jail was appalling when he first visited the eight-story main jail tower in early 2017. Toilets were crusted with feces, mattresses were filthy and shower areas hadn't gotten a thorough cleaning in a long time.

"The operative word for the cleanliness of the fixtures would be 'disgusting,' " the CRA report said, but suggested that sanitation began to improve during the course of the months-long review.

The other consultant's audit determined that the facility was outdated and needed either renovation at a cost of about $150 million or replacement at a cost of $180 million or more.

That report from the Kansas City-based design firm HOK Inc. said a new jail was the better option considering the poor shape of the 34-year-old detention center in downtown Kansas City.

Both audits came in response to growing concerns about the jail after two sexual assaults in the early morning hours of Aug. 26, 2016. Security lapses allowed men awaiting trial on serious state charges to roam the facility at night. Two women held on minor offenses were attacked.

Many lawsuits followed, with inmates alleging poor sanitation, abusive guards and lax security that subjected inmates to beatings and rape by other inmates.

The detention center at 1300 Cherry St. opened in 1984 to replace the outmoded one atop the Jackson County Courthouse.

Built for $23 million (roughly equal to $74 million today), the red-brick tower on Cherry Street was state-of-the-art for its time, but overcrowded from the start.

To comply with a federal court order, a jail annex opened in 1999 to provide more space, but crowding is once again an issue.

So is staffing. While the county complains that it is unable to attract enough people to fill openings for correctional officers, the grand jury said one reason may be that no one is assigned full time to recruit new guards.

Four Jackson County jail inmates were charged today in a brutal assault on Aug. 26, 2017,of a corrections officer, who suffered a concussion and other injuries, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker announced today.



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