Government & Politics

Frank White was slow to address jail problems, unsealed grand jury documents show

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.

Thousands of pages of newly unsealed court documents obtained by The Star offer insights into the missteps, mismanagement and years of neglect that led the Jackson County jail to its current crisis.

Officials knew, for instance, that the jail’s cell doors were in bad shape as far back as 2007, but only in the past couple of years were they repaired after security concerns grew to alarming levels.

The bathrooms on some floors flooded because torn and missing shower curtains weren’t replaced until a consultant toured the facility in 2017 and began work on a report on the jail’s operational shortcomings. Filthy mattresses were swapped out for new ones for that same reason.

Frustrated by County Executive Frank White’s slow progress in addressing health and safety concerns in the first two years of his administration, county legislators began taking a more active role, prodding him to take action, which created friction that still persists.

“It’s like we have to constantly take two steps backward in order to take one step forward,” legislative auditor Crissy Wooderson commented in one of the documents. “And at the end of the day, we’re getting nowhere.”

The Star obtained the documents through an open records request. They come from the files of two consecutive grand jury panels that met secretly for nine months to investigate reports that the jail was dirty, inhumane and unsafe for inmates and employees alike.

The 1,700 pages of testimony transcript and thousands of pages of supporting documents provided the foundation for last May’s scathing report condemning current and former county officials for operating a jail so squalid and dangerous that inmates plead guilty to criminal charges rather than wait for trial because they know that better living conditions await them in state prison.

“We respectfully demand action,” the grand jurors said in the report’s introduction.

The Star gained access to the documents after a prolonged legal battle. They provide insight into why jurors concluded that the county has done a poor job caring for the roughly 1,000 people incarcerated at any one time in the jail complex at 1300 Cherry St. in downtown Kansas City. The judge in the case also ordered the county to reimburse the newspaper more than $13,000 in legal fees.

Over the course of many sessions in 2017 and 2018, the county prosecutor’s office questioned 16 witnesses subpoenaed by the grand jury, the records show. They included everyone from White to the current and former directors of the jail, and even the woman in charge of the inmate cleaning crew.

Grand jury records are normally secret, but because there was no criminal investigation and three grand jurors spoke publicly about the report at a meeting of the county legislature, there was no need for secrecy, The Star and county prosecutors argued.

New jail planned

The release of the records comes at a turning point in the years-long debate over how to address problems with overcrowding, staffing shortages and other challenges at the Jackson County Detention Center, in which most of the inmates have yet to be convicted of a crime.

Last week, White, Sheriff Darryl Forté and this year’s chairwoman of the county legislature, Theresa Galvin, announced formation of a working group that could finally set in motion the process that will ultimately lead to construction of a replacement for the 35-year-old jail. White recently handed off jail operations to Forté because of a charter change approved by voters in November.

White, however, is responsible for maintaining all county buildings and the legislature controls the funding.

The Star recently reported that White’s administration had heavily censored a consultant’s report made public in January that laid out considerations for deciding what the new jail should look like and how big it should be.

Legislators plan to ask about the omissions at their Monday session. They also plan to ask why they were not asked for authorization for spending the $13,000 to pay The Star’s legal fees. Such a transaction should have come before the legislature.

The current detention center is designed to hold 750 prisoners who are up on state charges, while another 275 beds are devoted to people being held on Kansas City municipal charges and in a Kansas City Police Department holding area.

In his grand jury testimony, White said “when you talk to the people in the community, they’re saying, well, we don’t want a bigger jail because jails are for poor people. Jails are for locking up more black people.”

But the jail is often overcrowded. A consultant’s report put out in January said the new jail might hold as many as 1,500, but legislator Dan Tarwater said he was told an earlier version never shown to legislators suggested a jail for an area our size could hold around 2,500.

Whatever the size, even White says it is time to begin work on a new jail.

But some of his critics say work should have been underway long ago.

That’s one reason Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters decided to open the grand jury investigation two summers ago. She was frustrated with White for not being more aggressive in addressing the jail’s many problems identified in a 2015 jail task force report.

But White told the grand jurors he did the best he could, given the circumstances.

“I‘d just like to reiterate that the facility, when I took over, was at its very worst state,” White testified, “and I didn’t look at it ... from a pessimistic standpoint of, oh, why did they do me this way, that kind of thing, I looked at it as an opportunity to make things better. “

‘Growing frustration’

The grand jury testimony tells the behind-the-scenes story of the power struggles between elected officials, as well as the repeated failures of county government to provide for the humane care of inmates.

Trouble at the jail first surfaced in August 2015 when then-County Executive Mike Sanders announced that the FBI was investigating an incident in which jail guards allegedly used excessive force on an inebriated inmate strapped in a restraint chair.

Four corrections officers were later charged with federal civil rights violations, for which they are still awaiting trial. The county paid a $437,000 settlement to the victim of the assault, who suffered broken ribs and other injuries as a result of the beating.

After the FBI probe began, the jail became a source of growing concern across the street at the downtown courthouse. Inmates filed lawsuits alleging that their living quarters were crowded, dirty and unsafe. Security lapses led to the rapes of two women in jail on minor charges by men awaiting trial for murder and other violent crimes. The relatives of detainees who died in custody alleged that their loved ones’ medical needs were ignored.

In early 2017, Baker began to suspect that two witnesses were murdered outside the jail after jail inmates arranged hits over cell phones they shouldn’t have had. After yet another FBI investigation, the jail was raided and two guards were charged with smuggling cell phones and other contraband, for which they both pleaded guilty.

By then, Baker, then-Sheriff Mike Sharp and county legislators had run out of patience with White, who’d replaced Sanders as county executive earlier that year and was responsible for running the jail.

He didn’t seem to be approaching the problems at the jail with the urgency those other officials believed it deserved. His seeming reticence to tackle the problem head on continued into 2018 when legislator Scott Burnett told the grand jury “there’s been a growing frustration month after month among the legislature about the lack of action.”

Other grand jury testimony bolstered Burnett’s criticism. For instance, the jail task force Sanders formed in 2015 issued a report that fall saying that the county needed to do a better job keeping the jail clean.

But it was a year and a half before White’s administration hired a cleaning company to power wash all the cells, and then only after consultant Jim Rowenhorst pronounced the place a filthy mess.

His observations prompted White’s administration to replace the missing shower curtains, replace 800 cracked mattresses and scrub down toilets that Rowenhorst said were caked with feces.

Jail staff told the grand jury it wasn’t excrement but calcium deposits from hard water.

When asked by the grand jury why it took so long for those problems to be addressed, White was at a loss to explain.

“I don’t have an answer for that one,” he testified. “ I don’t know if there was a lag or I don’t know whether it was an oversight at this — at this one time. Again, I can’t speak to that. I’m sorry.“

On numerous occasions he said he depended on his subordinates to let him know about problems, and while he took regular tours of the jail, he never went into inmate housing units to inspect conditions. He peered in from the hallways.

“I’ll leave it up to them to tell me where I need to go and where — where they feel comfortable for me going and that type of thing,” he said. “They’re the experts.”

Despite all the complaints about filthy conditions and mold, White said: “Everything seems to be clean to me.”

The legislature hired Rowenhorst without White’s support because members were upset that White wasn’t addressing problems within the jail.

“It was my impression that the executive did not want to go down this path and drug their feet as much as they could,” Burnett said. While chairman in 2017 and 2018, he was the legislature’s point man on jail issues.

White said in his testimony that he found Rowenhorst’s observations helpful and was only hesitant at the outset because of how the public findings might affect the county’s standing with regard to lawsuits filed by inmates.

“Mainly, my — our biggest concern was just making sure that we don’t — because, you know, we have ongoing cases in the facility, just make sure we don’t do anything to disrupt those — those things,” White testified.

Another source of friction: While Rowenhorst was preparing his report, White had hired the HOK architectural firm to assess the physical condition of the eight-story main jail tower, three-story annex and five-story Regional Correctional Center.

Both sides had promised to share their draft reports as soon as they were completed, but Burnett said White’s office didn’t fulfill its part of the bargain, holding the HOK report for two months before handing it over.

Later in the fall of 2017, when one of White’s aides asked Burnett if the legislature would support hiring HOK to build on its first report and plan a new jail, Burnett refused and said any contract would have to go out for bid.

In the meantime, Burnett said he fielded inquiries from other companies that were interested in getting the contract to build a new jail. At the time of his testimony, he had arranged for fellow legislators to hear private presentations from J.E Dunn Construction, HOK and an unidentified company out of St. Louis.

Each time he made sure no more than three legislators were on hand, he said, so as not to violate the open meetings law.

In the spring of 2018, as the grand jury was wrapping up its report, the county hired two of HOK’s competitors, Shive-Hattery and HDR, to work on a report outlining all the factors to consider in building a new jail, including possible reforms in the criminal justice system.

That was the one that came out in January and whose heavy editing by White’s administration has led to renewed friction with the county legislature. It was released in conjunction with yet another jail task force report authored by a citizens panel similar to the one that produced the 2015 report.

That makes five reports in all since 2015 when the three done by paid consultants are included. So far, there’s been no decision on how big of a jail to build or where.

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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, Twitter direct message @kcmikehendricks, or anonymously via Signal encrypted message at 816-234-4738