Government & Politics

Two choices on troubled jail — build new or fix the old. Either way, it’ll cost you

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.

Jackson County legislators, facing a decision on what to do about the county’s troubled jail, were given two options Tuesday:

▪ Renovate the existing facility at a cost of $150 million — a logistical nightmare to accomplish that, after it was done, still would still leave the county with an outdated facility;

▪ Build a brand new, state-of-the-art jail with the same number of beds that might cost upwards of $180 million but with fewer headaches.

The consultant that laid out those two options for county officials Tuesday made the case that a new jail was the far better option considering the poor shape of the current facility in downtown Kansas City.

Either way, something drastic needs to be done to address security and other issues in a facility that has suffered mightily from 30 years of neglected maintenance, concluded the report from Kansas City design firm HOK Inc.

“Together, several factors have led to the tipping point where major capital expenditures are necessary for the building to perform safely for the public, inmates and staff,” the report said.

In fact, four buildings make up the jail complex at 13th and Cherry Streets: the Jackson County Detention Center, the jail annex, Regional Correctional Center and Albert Riederer Community Justice Center.

The buildings range in age from 20 to more than 80 years old, and all are in various stages of disrepair, HOK said, and do not conform to current standards, such as meeting the handicapped accessibility requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act.

HOK’s assessment, along with a separate report on jail operations also released Tuesday, provide the foundation for what promises to be a monthslong discussion on a topic that county officials have been dreading since troubles at the jail first came into focus two year ago.

The need to make a decision on whether to build a new jail is coming “sooner than we’d like,” veteran county legislator Denny Waits said at the end of HOK’s presentation at Tuesday’s regular meeting of the county legislature. But he and others said the HOK assessment of the jail complex make it clear those talks are long past due.

County Executive Frank White recommended the start of a master planning process begin, without endorsing any one plan of action.

“The goal is to help determine whether the county should renovate, expand, build new or do a combination of those things,” White said in a prepared statement.

In HOK’s opinion, however, anything less than replacing the current complex with a new facility would be throwing good money after bad.

A new 1,000-bed jail on 15 acres outside of downtown wouldn’t cost a whole lot more than renovating the existing jail — something in the range of $150 million to $180 million for a new jail — and yet have the benefit of being cheaper to operate and safer for those who work there and the inmates they watch over.

Single-story jails like the one being proposed have fewer security issues and often require fewer guards than multi-level facilities like the nine-story Jackson County Detention Center, HOK said.

Plus, renovating the current jail would be an operational nightmare, as the work would continue for years while the jail would have to continue operating.

And when the work was finished, “it would still be more than 30 years behind current detention standards,” said HOK senior project manager Sonja Jury.

Plus, it wouldn’t alleviate the crowding issues that plague the current facility.

The cost estimate for a new jail was based on the jail’s current capacity, so it likely would be more expensive than the estimates in the report. But the HOK study did not address what the capacity of a new jail should be and, therefore, didn’t say what it might cost to build a jail with, say, 1,500 beds.

That is something that would be part of a master planning study, Jury said.

An advocate for a new and larger jail, Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker sat quietly in the public viewing area during the presentation and afterward expressed relief that county officials are now seriously considering their options.

“Hallelujah,” she said.

At the meeting, White also called for raising guard pay to $15 an hour in an effort to boost staffing levels. The county struggles to hire and retain guards, whose starting pay is now $12.60 an hour, the lowest in the metro area.

After one year, guards would make a maximum of $19 an hour under White’s plan, up from the current $16.

HOK focused strictly on the physical condition of the jail. But a second one released Tuesday focused on operations.

Auditor Jim Rowenhorst’s report said he found awful conditions on his initial visit in the spring — 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 the long-awaited audit report.

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 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 21-page audit says.

Legislators commissioned the CRA assessment in response to two sexual assaults that allegedly occurred in the early-morning hours of Aug. 26, 2016. Security lapses allowed men awaiting trial on serious state charges to roam free within the jail. Two women being held for minor offenses said the men attacked them.

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.

The CRA report praised 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