Government & Politics

Frank White’s administration cut over half of report detailing Jackson Co. jail issues

Jackson County Executive Frank White’s administration suppressed more than half of a consulting team’s report that outlined shortcomings at the troubled county jail while it was under his supervision.

White gave no hint when he released the Shive-Hattery report at the first of this year that the 53-page document had been heavily edited, despite his outspoken support for government “transparency” during his three years as head of county government.

The Star learned of the extensive omissions — more than 60 pages of singled-spaced text and charts — after obtaining a copy of the original, 118-page draft independently. A reporter then shared the document with the past two chairpersons of the county legislature, which last spring appropriated up to $285,000 for the study that White said would finally lay the factual foundation for replacing the Jackson County Detention Center with a safer and more humane facility.

Neither this year’s chairwoman, Theresa Galvin, nor her predecessor, legislator Scott Burnett, had seen the original report, although according to White’s spokeswoman they could have done so last fall had they scheduled an appointment to read it in the county counselor’s office. Public information officer Marshanna Hester said no copies were distributed until it was determined “if any information contained within the report would potentially create any safety or security risks for staff or inmates.“

Both Galvin and Burnett said they knew the final version had been edited when it finally came out, but not whole sections removed for reasons that both find questionable.

“I feel like we’ve been lied to,” Galvin said.

Said Burnett: “It’s curious why so much was redacted.”

Missing from the final report were two sections containing some of the consultants’ most critical observations. The original version’s 29 recommendations had been shaved to 17.

The most troubling deletion, Galvin and Burnett said, was the White administration’s removal of the project team’s 15-page critical evaluation of the jail’s medical and mental health services during the first half of 2018. Nothing in it appeared to have a bearing on the security issues used as the rationale for keeping it secret.

Among those findings: The contractor then in charge of health care had conducted health appraisals on just 3 percent of the inmates, rather than the recommended 100 percent.

Treatments for high blood pressure, diabetes and other chronic conditions were recorded at rates far below what would be expected based on national averages.

Also, the portion of the jail population with mental health issues — at least a third — was not being cared for adequately, but it was hard to make a detailed assessment because of record-keeping problems and lack of other information.

Also missing from the report White issued was a 20-page section focusing on what the consultants said were inadequate educational and substance abuse programs provided in the often overcrowded jail. For example, the consultants said the jail was often too short-staffed for corrections officers to shepherd inmates to classes.

Policy changes that prohibited men and women from attending the same classes had the unintended consequences of extending jail time for people whose sentences were tied to completing programs, such as one called Sober Me.

The shorter report devoted only a few paragraphs to both topics and only in generalities.

All the statistical detail had been scrubbed.

Galvin and Burnett said that kind of information would be helpful to them as they work toward building a new jail, which both versions of the report estimate could cost as much as $270 million.

“How can we make the proper decisions without the proper information?” Galvin asked.

During a phone conversation Friday night, White challenged that statement, saying that legislators still have access to the information, but that some of his staffers, who he didn’t identify, decided it would be wise to restrict public access to the material.

“That’s not my fault,” he said. “That’s not my call.”

He said he assumed that the reasons the unnamed aides gave for suppressing the information was sound, but did not know specifically what in those 60-plus pages posed a security risk.

“It’s not possible for me to know everything that’s going on,” he said. “We’re not trying to hide anything.”

The jail is perhaps the county’s leading challenge and has been since 2015, when an FBI investigation of guards using excessive force was disclosed. Since then, a litany of problems has surfaced. Some, such as faulty plumbing, broken elevators and cell doors that wouldn’t lock, spoke to the age of the facility and lack of investment in upkeep.

Some concerned issues of security and mismanagement. Rapes, assaults and allegations of medical malpractice have also provoked headlines and investigations.

Several studies and a grand jury report were issued over the past couple of years calling attention to the poor physical condition and operational problems at the 35-year-old Jackson County Detention Center, its newer annex and adjacent Regional Correctional Center.

This latest study was supposed to tie previous findings together and provide a foundation for construction of a new, safer jail.

White promised an impartial and thorough outside assessment of the jail and the criminal justice system that orders the incarceration of people charged with everything from minor offenses to capital murder.

People aware of the differences between the study the consultants produced and the one that White released said the edited version falls short of that goal.

“It’s a whitewash,” said one expert who asked not to be identified for fear of suffering professional repercussions. “I was astounded.”

One of those overseeing the study was Michael Lewis, a project manager at Shive-Hattery, the architecture and engineering firm based in West Des Moines, Iowa. His firm and a sometime competitor, Omaha-based HDR, took the lead in writing the report, with the help of four subcontractors.

When The Star called Lewis to ask why the final report was much shorter than the original draft, Lewis said the edits were all done at the direction of White’s office in consultation with the county’s legal staff and supposedly for “security concerns.”

After being informed that the newspaper had a copy of the original report and saw nothing to back up that rationale, Lewis offered no rebuttal.

“We did not separate out the material on our own,” he said again. “It was at their request.”

The consultants’ report was originally scheduled to be finished in November and released along with a less-detailed report written by the citizens-led Jail Task Force.

But publication of both documents was pushed back by two months so that the Shive-Hattery report could be edited further. The county executive’s office gave Galvin and Burnett the same explanation Shive-Hattery was given.

“I was told this report had to be delayed because there were (floor) plans to the jail in the study,” Galvin said.

That’s still the county executive’s stated rationale for cutting sections from public view “inasmuch as they dealt with security systems and other information, the release of which would pose a danger to the safety of corrections staff and/or inmates,” Hester, White’s spokeswoman, said in a written statement.

But Galvin and Burnett scoffed at that. After reading the draft that The Star provided them, Galvin and Burnett said they found nothing to justify cutting the material from the final report.

“I didn’t see any plans to the jail in it,” Galvin said.

She’s angered by the apparent deception. Perhaps White was unaware that his staff ordered the cuts, she said.

“I want to give him (White) the benefit of the doubt, but I don’t know how he could not have known,” she said.

She worries that the breach of trust won’t be easily repaired. The legislature and county executive had only recently begun to rebuild a cooperative relationship after a tumultuous couple of years that saw White and his chief of staff, Caleb Clifford, criticized for using what legislators called accounting tricks to hide expenditures from them.

Galvin said it was only after White and Clifford assured her in November that “all the lies and hiding was over” that she agreed to chair the legislature this year.

“This is just so upsetting to me,” she said. “I can’t wrap my head around why someone would cut the heart out of this study.”

Burnett said he thought some of the suggestions on mental health in the original report would be “very helpful.”

However, the nuggets of potentially helpful information were in a slurry of other facts that county officials could have found both embarrassing and problematic in terms of potential lawsuits.

The county paid a $150,000 settlement last year to the family of an inmate who died from a drug overdose while strapped into a restraint chair. The jail’s former health care provider, Correct Care Solutions, also entered into a settlement agreement with the man’s survivors recently rather than defend itself in court against allegations that nurses failed to get the man to the hospital in time.

The family of another detainee also threatened suit after she died in custody from a medical condition. The jail changed health care providers last summer.

White still oversees the buildings in the Detention Center complex, but is no longer in charge of jail operations. He handed control of the county’s Department of Corrections to Sheriff Darryl Forté Jan. 1 as a result of a charter change approved by voters in November.

Forté has yet to share his plans for the jail with legislators.

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Mike Hendricks is a member of The Star’s investigations and watchdog reporting team. Send tips and story ideas in confidence by email to mhendricks@kcstar.com, Twitter direct message @kcmikehendricks, or anonymously via Signal encrypted message at 816-234-4738
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