Government & Politics

Jackson County jail director resigns amid growing problems at downtown KC facility

Joe Piccinini inherited leadership of the troubled Jackson County jail amid an FBI investigation into guards using excessive force on prisoners.

Now, more than two years later, with other troubles mounting and the county’s elected leaders squabbling over the jail’s future, Piccinini has resigned his six-figure job as director of corrections.

“He came in at a tough time,” County Executive Frank White said in announcing the leadership change at a Friday afternoon news conference.

Piccinini tendered his resignation the day before, White said, and both agreed that new management was needed.

Piccinini’s deputy, Diana Turner, will serve as acting director. Unlike Piccinini, she has corrections experience, a requirement for the new permanent director.

White said a nationwide search will begin next week.

Piccinini had weathered increasing criticism from county legislators alarmed at news of continuing violence and security breaches at the Jackson County Detention Center and adjoining Regional Correctional Center.

As recently as Tuesday’s legislative meeting, legislator Crystal Williams challenged White to make a change at the top in light of the most recent assault on a guard on Thanksgiving Eve.

“Why do you have the same management team in place running that jail, when incident after incident after incident occurs?” she asked.

White denied a change was necessary.

“I have complete confidence in the people we have over there,” he said at the time.

Exactly 72 hours later, White announced that Piccinini was stepping down, calling him “a man of integrity, compassion and respect.”

He said the 57-year-old Piccinini didn’t “want to be a distraction because his priority is to fix the problem and ensure our corrections facility reaches the level of excellence our staff, inmates and community deserve.”

Like his predecessor, Ken Conlee, Piccinini came to the job without prior experience running a jail. Both men had completed long careers in law enforcement. Before joining the county corrections department, both had been chief of the Lee’s Summit Police Department.

Piccinini replaced Conlee as chief when Conlee took the county job in 2007, then came to work as Conlee’s top assistant in 2014 when Piccinini, too, retired from the police force.

Former Jackson County Executive Mike Sanders made him acting director the following year, when Conlee stepped aside with health problems in 2015, and then got the job on a permanent basis.

His 2016 employment agreement guaranteed him a base annual salary of $110,500 and an $800-a-month car allowance. It calls for no severance if he quits the job and six months’ pay if he is let go without cause.

During his tenure, he oversaw millions of dollars of improvement projects to fix broken cell doors and other renovations, while trying to improve working conditions for corrections officers.

But without the benefit of funds to increase guard pay to market levels, he was never able to hire enough staff to run the facility and security suffered. Guards and inmates alike fell victim to violent assaults that made headlines and brought pressure from constituents on county legislators to fix the problem.

County officials are now considering whether to build a new jail, but Piccinini will not be the man running it.

Turner was named deputy director in September after three years of running the 70-bed juvenile detention and residential treatment centers for Jackson County Family Court. Prior to that, Turner worked with prisoners at halfway houses in Kansas City and for 15 years at the Missouri Department of Corrections, according to her resume.

Mike Hendricks: 816-234-4738, @kcmikehendricks