Government & Politics

Jackson County jail inmates say they were forced to live in filth, file lawsuits

Two lawsuits describe similar “dangerous or repugnant” conditions a year apart and in different areas of the Jackson County Detention Center, and they contend that jail staff were indifferent to remedying inmate complaints.
Two lawsuits describe similar “dangerous or repugnant” conditions a year apart and in different areas of the Jackson County Detention Center, and they contend that jail staff were indifferent to remedying inmate complaints. File photo

His jail cell stank like a feces-laden sewer the last few weeks of his stay at the Jackson County Detention Center, Joshua Riechmann said.

When inmates in adjoining cells flushed their toilets, urine and human excrement would sometimes back up into Riechmann’s toilet bowl and slop onto the floor for him to clean up the best he could.

“By far it’s one of the worst jails I’ve been in,” Lee’s Summit attorney Casey Symonds said in discussing the lawsuit he filed Wednesday on Riechmann’s behalf. “It’s archaic and unsanitary.”

Another lawsuit filed last month in federal court tells a similar tale about conditions at the downtown Kansas City lockup.

Former Jackson County inmate Nicholas Ayers alleges in that case that his toilet had no water supply. To get it to flush, he lugged water to his second-floor cell from one flight below.

His lawsuit is based on injuries he says he sustained when he fell carrying a plastic trash can full of water on a night when the stench in his cell was so awful he couldn’t sleep.

Both lawsuits describe similar conditions a year apart and in different areas of the nine-story detention center. And they contend that jail staff were indifferent to remedying inmate complaints about what one of the suits describes as “dangerous or repugnant conditions at the JCDC.”

County officials do not comment on pending litigation. But a spokesman for County Executive Frank White on Tuesday issued a statement addressing the jail’s plumbing problems and efforts to repair them.

“Within the facility there are approximately 1,000 toilets and hundreds of showers and sinks, “ the statement said. “Ongoing leaks and clogs happen throughout the facility routinely. The Detention Complex has two plumbers on staff and has a contract with an outside vendor to respond to emergency plumbing needs after hours and on weekends.

“In 2017 Jackson County Legislature appropriated funds for some improvements in the jail. One of the improvements was the waste stack replacement project that started in February 2017 and ended in March 2017. Approximate cost was $57,000.”

The recent lawsuits do not stand in isolation. They reference longstanding complaints about the 33-year-old Jackson County Detention Center that other inmates and their relatives have expressed to The Star in the two years since federal authorities began investigating jail operations, and treatment of inmates.

In addition to the sewage problems, those other issues include standing water and black mold, which also has been noted in recent inspection reports from the Jackson County Health Department.

The detention center and adjacent Regional Correctional Center are designed to house 900 inmates awaiting trial on felonies, serving out short sentences, or waiting to post bond for minor offenses.

They share space in a facility fraught with problems that county officials have been trying to address since a citizens task force issued a report in 2015 highlighting the need for improvements.

Sanitation is just one of several concerns at the jail that have arisen in a nearly two-year span that has included allegations of prisoner abuse by guards, lax security that contributed to sexual assaults on inmates by other inmates, and concerns about adequate medical care.

In the past 10 days, The Star has run an article about an inmate who died at the detention center in January after her fatal medical condition went undiagnosed by two nurses. On Friday, a federal indictment was unsealed charging four former guards with allegedly beating a shackled prisoner so badly he had to be hospitalized.

And then on Wednesday morning, the less serious but still disturbing allegations of jail sanitation issues arose for the second time in a federal lawsuit in as many months.

Riechmann of Kansas City was booked into the jail last September on an outstanding warrant for a still-pending DWI case in Carroll County and other charges that were later dismissed.

From then until the first part of March, he was housed on the facility’s fifth floor, but he and other inmates were moved to the third floor in early March because there was black mold throughout the fifth floor, the suit alleges.

After being assigned to his new cell, Riechmann found “the sink and toilet in the cell were inoperable and overflowing with water, human feces, human urine, and other raw sewage.”

It smelled terrible. He said he complained in writing three times in March, but got no response and was refused cleaning supplies other than a mop and a bucket.

“Plaintiff was not provided with gloves or disinfectant,” the lawsuit said.

Jackson County and the FBI investigated four cases in 2015 of inmates who alleged physical abuse by guards at the county jail. The investigation was an effort to determine whether the incidents were isolated or signs of a broken system.

He and other inmates were moved back to the fifth floor on April 4, claims Riechmann, who was released from jail two weeks later.

His lawsuit asks for unspecified monetary damages and a court injunction requiring the county to better train corrections officers in recognizing the Eighth Amendments rights of detainees to be protected from cruel and unusual punishment.

Ayers, the other plaintiff, is now serving a 15-year sentence for assault and armed criminal action at the Crossroads Correctional Center in Cameron, Mo.

A year ago, while awaiting trial, he was housed on the second floor of the Jackson County Detention Center. Like Riechmann, he claims his Eighth Amendment rights were violated because of unsanitary conditions.

Ayers claims the detention center was overcrowded during his stay with multiple inmates housed in every cell and cots in the common areas.

Twice, the plumbing pipe in his cell broke in January 2016, the suit alleges, and his water was shut off. Meantime, sewage from an adjacent cell would flow into his dry toilet bowl and occasionally spill over.

Ayers said his requests to be transferred to another cell were denied, so for weeks he carried in water to flush the toilet.

On March 17 of last year, he got up at 4 a.m. to fill the toilet because the smell was so strong he couldn’t sleep, the suit claims. He was able to leave his cell in the middle of the night because the lock was broken like on so many other cells, a situation that the county has been addressing.

“As (Ayers) carried the water up the stairs in the darkness,” the lawsuits says, “Plaintiff lost his balance due to the water shifting in the trash can and Plaintiff fell backward striking his head, neck and back.”

In addition, he claims he was exposed to “serious health risk” because of his exposure to the sewage spills.

No court dates have been set in either case, both of which name Jackson County and Corrections Director Joe Piccinini as defendants.

Mike Hendricks: 816-234-4738, @kcmikehendricks