Government & Politics

Secret investigation of Jackson County jail uncovered

Jackson County has hired a Kansas City law firm to represent county employees in a secret and previously unreported investigation of conditions at the Jackson County Detention Center.

The Star learned of the investigation through public records it requested from county officials this week concerning a legal services agreement between the county and the Wyrsch Hobbs Mirakian firm, which specializes in criminal and civil matters.

Nowhere do the documents state what entity is conducting the investigation. But in an Oct. 12 letter to the county’s chief deputy county counselor, attorney J.R. Hobbs said the probe was centered in Jackson County Circuit Court, where the only kind of investigations held are those conducted by a grand jury.

According to state statute, grand juries are authorized to investigate conditions at public buildings. Those investigation are not generally criminal in nature.

A spokesman for Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker declined comment Thursday. But in previous public comments, she has been critical of jail conditions and said she would support building a new jail.

The county’s formal contract for legal services with the law firm, dated Dec. 20, states that the firm was being hired to represent “certain Jackson County associates in an inquiry into the conditions of confinement” at the downtown Kansas City jail.

Those employees are not named, nor is a number given for how many are being represented in the proceedings. However, in another document dated Dec. 18, Hobbs said some of the witnesses had “more complicated issues touching upon the application of executive privilege.”

Hobbs declined comment. The spokeswoman for County Executive Frank White, who has ultimate responsibility for running the detention center, referred questions to the county counselor’s office, which did not immediately respond.

News of the investigation comes at a time when White and the County Legislature are at odds on the future of the detention center, parts of which are 35 years old and in disrepair. Some legislators say it is well past time to replace the jail with a new one that could cost $200 million or more.

While not ruling out building a new facility, White has concerns about increasing the bed space when there are other avenues to dealing with offenders other than incarceration.

The jail complex often holds 1,000 detainees in separate buildings for people being held on state and city charges. Its stated capacity is hundreds less.

Inmates have filed lawsuits in recent years complaining of mold and leaking raw sewage, as well as lax security due to under-staffing that has resulted in inmates being raped and beaten by other detainees.

White has tried to correct the problems by spending millions to replace broken cell doors and rotten pipes.

He’s also brought in a new management team in December. Acting corrections department director Diana Turner is the first department head in more than a decade with previous experience running a jail.

Her predecessor, Joe Piccinini, was a former Lee’s Summit police chief, as was the man who held the job before him.

The county has agreed to pay the law firm up to $20,000 to represent employees in the investigation. Almost half of that amount, $9,406, had been billed as of Dec. 18, Hobbs noted in the Dec. 18 letter.

Mike Hendricks: 816-234-4738, @kcmikehendricks