Editorial: Jackson County jail needs more of Frank White’s attention

The Jackson County Detention Center is a jail in crisis. Overcrowding. Understaffing. Problems with sanitation and health. Unsafe conditions for guards and inmates.

Years of neglect have led to substandard physical conditions, high staff turnover and costly lawsuits.

Housing inmates is an essential responsibility of Jackson County’s government. It must provide a jail that is sanitary and safe, while protecting hundreds of thousands of residents from criminal behavior.

Jackson County Executive Frank White told The Star’s editorial board Tuesday that addressing problems in the jail is a priority. “We inherited an aging facility that’s been overlooked,” he said. “But you still have it. It’s your responsibility. It’s a core responsibility. I don’t take that lightly.”

Perhaps. We know this: White and his colleagues must do more — and act quickly — to rectify problems at the jail.

The facility is too crowded. Jail officials say they’re equipped to detain 754 prisoners sentenced or awaiting trial on state charges; instead, between 790 and 800 prisoners are in custody on a given day.

Another 175 prisoners are held on municipal charges.

Judges and prosecutors meet every two weeks to decide which suspects can and can’t be released from the jail. Some are sent to other counties at taxpayer expense, creating a potential danger to surrounding communities.

Hiring and training of correctional officers is difficult, and turnover is high. Officers work 12-hour shifts. Despite recent pay hikes, the county employs 30 fewer officers than it needs.

Some guards have been accused of abusing inmates. A woman died at the jail in January. Sexual assaults have been alleged. Health services have been questioned.

In his discussion with us, White said he had hired new supervisors to address these concerns. He has worked to increase pay rates for jail guards.

Disturbingly, though, White also suggested some problems at the facility may simply be intractable.

“It’s a jail,” White said. “Things happen in a jail.”

Running a jail is difficult. But it can’t be acceptable to consider violent incidents routine or to think of threats to health and safety as unavoidable. Remember: Four out of five inmates in the Jackson County jail are awaiting trial and presumed innocent.

Yet county officials said they would not seek full accreditation for the jail until 2020 — evidence that current inmates may be suffering from a lack of care that meets a minimum standard of decency.

White and other officials told us they will know more about the cost of renovating the current jail and improving personnel practices later this summer. They would not commit to asking voters for permission to build a new jail, which could cost $300 million or more.

“It’s hard to say how big you need a jail,” White said.

That’s a question the county must answer soon, though. In the meantime, inmates must be treated as human beings and corrections officers as valued employees.

The county has viewed its jail as a nuisance, rather than a responsibility, for far too long. That attitude must change today.