Editorials

Do not pass go: Jackson County jail needs more than a facelift

When you defer maintenance for 30 years, you can’t get by with a renovation. And the $150 million it would take to rehab Jackson County Jail complex at 13th and Cherry wouldn’t even solve the safety problems there.
When you defer maintenance for 30 years, you can’t get by with a renovation. And the $150 million it would take to rehab Jackson County Jail complex at 13th and Cherry wouldn’t even solve the safety problems there. along@kcstar.com

Of the many tough calls in this world, this is not one: Jackson County needs a new jail.

When you defer maintenance for 30 years, you can’t get by with a renovation. And the $150 million it would take to rehab the jail complex at 13th and Cherry wouldn’t even solve the safety problems there. Or the overcrowding.

A new facility would cost at least $30 million more.

But those are the carrots or peas options that Kansas City design firm HOK Inc. laid out for county officials this week.

And though neither choice is appealing, it’s well past time to face the reality that, as the consultant’s report explained, we’re beyond “the tipping point where major capital expenditures are necessary for the building to perform safely for the public, inmates and staff.”

We hope that County Executive Frank White will respond by summoning some of the hustle he used to show on the baseball field. (Go, Frank!)

But we did not sense any great urgency in his statement that the “goal is to help determine whether the county should renovate, expand, build new or do a combination of those things.”

The time for mulling upgrades was years ago.

At this point, the need is so great that it’s not clear how the jail could even continue to operate under scaffolding with a rehab project that could drag on for years. Even when completed, what we’d get for our $150 million is a facility still decades out of date.

No, the pressing question now is where to build a new 1,000-bed single-story jail — which would be considerably easier to guard than the current nine-story detention center — on 15 acres outside of downtown. And of course, how to pay for such a facility, with funding voters would almost certainly have to approve.

In a second report on operations, auditor Jim Rowenhorst described serious staffing shortages — no wonder, given that many babysitters are better paid than guards there — and unsanitary conditions marked by “disgusting” toilets, mattresses and showers.

The auditor reported that jail officials had even ignored pleas from inmates for cleaning supplies so they could scrub down the place themselves.

Legislators ordered the audit after two women being held on minor charges reported that they were sexually assaulted by men allowed the run of the jail one early morning last August.

Abuse both from guards and other inmates has also been alleged in a number of lawsuits filed over the last year.

There have already been some improvements on the margins: Jackson County has done some cleanup, bought hundreds of new mattresses and fixed some of the plumbing.

But we’re only going to wind up spending more public dollars in the long run if we fail to start planning a new jail now, without any more studies, can-kicking or chin-tugging. (Go, Frank!)

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