Government & Politics

‘Disgusting’ conditions greeted auditor on first inspection of Jackson County jail

Jackson County officials debate the need for a new detention center

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.
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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.

On his first visit to size up the Jackson County jail earlier this year, it was the filth that auditor Jim Rowenhorst initially found most appalling

Toilets crusted with feces, filthy mattresses and showers that looked as if they hadn’t been cleaned in a very long time.

“The operative word for the cleanliness of the fixtures would be disgusting,” Rowenhorst wrote in a long-awaited audit report to the Jackson County Legislature that was released to the public on Tuesday.

And yet, he noted, jail officials ignored pleas from detainees for even basic cleaning supplies to make living conditions more tolerable.

“One inmate said she had repeatedly asked for rubber gloves and cleaning material so she could clean all the toilets in the housing unit,” the audit said. “None were received.”

It’s a telling anecdote. For as the auditor from CRA Inc. of Vienna, Va., would conclude after three subsequent visits, the poor sanitation at the Jackson County Detention Center was a symptom of a much bigger problem.

There were simply not enough people on the payroll — and understandably so, due to Jackson county corrections officers being the lowest paid among all jailers in the metro area — to keep the facility safe for detainees and guards alike, much less attend to proper sanitation.

“Many of the serious problems can be related to the shortage of staff,” the audit says.

The 21-page report is the first of two outside audits legislators ordered up late last year to assess conditions at the Jackson County Detention Center.

The decision to hire outside consultants was in response to two sexual assaults that allegedly occurred in the early-morning hours of Aug. 26, 2016, when men awaiting trial on serious state charges roamed free within the jail and attacked two women who were being held for minor offenses.

In the year since, a slew of lawsuits have been filed alleging poor sanitation, abusive guards and lax security that allegedly subjected inmates to beatings and rape by other inmates.

Between the cost of hiring outside auditors, settling lawsuits and the mounting repair bills to fix broken cell doors and rotting plumbing, taxpayers have spent several million dollars on problems associated with the jail.

But a far higher price looms if, as many county officials expect, the county decides to build a new jail as a result of the CRA audit and an upcoming report on the physical condition of the jail, the main tower of which is now 33 years old.

Rough estimates for building a new jail start at $150 million, according to Scott Burnett, chairman of the legislature.

The CRA report praised Jackson County Executive Frank White and his staff for responding to the auditor’s findings even before the written report was submitted for review.

The county’s department of corrections improved sanitation, cleaning toilets and living areas and providing inmates with cleaning supplies, the audit said. Eight hundred mattresses were replaced, and plumbing problems that caused toilets to overflow were addressed.

But staffing and crowding issues remain. Inmates, most of whom are awaiting trial rather than serving out sentences, get recreation time as little as once a month because not enough guards are on staff to supervise them.

Inmates’ safety is also compromised because surveillance cameras don’t peer into every corner of the facility, the audit said. Detainees plan attacks for those areas, knowing there will be no video record.

Also lacking are intercoms in cells so that inmates can call for help in the event of an emergency, the audit said.

Mike Hendricks: 816-234-4738, @kcmikehendricks