Editorials

A dead inmate, one on the loose, another escaped. What’s going on at KC’s temporary jail?

Does Jackson County need a new jail?

County Executive Frank White says he is open to building a new jail. But in announcing a new task force two weeks ago, he said he was unsure that it needs to be bigger than the current jail.
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County Executive Frank White says he is open to building a new jail. But in announcing a new task force two weeks ago, he said he was unsure that it needs to be bigger than the current jail.

Kansas City’s arrangement with Heartland Center for Behavioral Change to temporarily house municipal jail detainees is off to a disastrous start.

The city paid $3.2 million to rent 110 beds from Heartland Center. Less than two months later, one inmate has died, and two potentially dangerous inmates have escaped from the facility at 15th and Campbell streets.

Transferring detainees from the Jackson County Regional Correctional Center to Heartland was always a less-than-ideal solution for housing city inmates. But the serious problems playing out in rapid succession at Heartland have highlighted the increasingly urgent need for a long-term jail plan.

Last week, an unnamed offender was found dead, and another, Terrence Bryant, escaped. Police have not said how the inmate died, and officials continue to investigate.

Thankfully, Bryant, who was arrested for allegedly violating a protection order in a domestic violence case and resisting arrest, was back in custody a few hours later. But another potentially dangerous escapee, Jermond Lewis, remains on the run.

Lewis is accused of trying to stab a woman. He broke out of his restraints and escaped about two weeks after being transferred to Heartland in late June, police said.

Heartland officials aren’t saying much about their plans to secure the temporary jail. Spokesman Kyle Mead didn’t return several phone calls seeking comment.

With an inmate still at large and other serious questions unanswered, Heartland officials’ silence is unacceptable. Multiple incidents raise a multitude of concerns about security and safety.

On the plus side, Heartland is providing mental health and substance abuse programs for some city detainees. But does the center have the expertise or staff to operate a detention facility? If not, what are the city’s options?

Kansas City’s contract to rent 275 beds at the Jackson County jail ended June 25. County officials declined to renew the arrangement because the city refused to double the amount it was paying to rent space for inmates.

A $1.2 million deal to rent 50 beds in a Johnson County, Missouri, jail for convicted offenders followed. Other defendants are housed in Vernon County, Missouri.

Chris Hernandez, a spokesman for the city, said public safety is a concern for Heartland detainees and the community.

“We are having daily conversations,” Hernandez said of the necessary next steps. Asked what it would take for the city to pull the plug on its contract with Heartland, Hernandez repeated that talks are ongoing.

City officials huddled with Heartland after the first escape. Those discussions continued last week.

“Obviously we have some concerns,” Hernandez said.

We hope that’s an understatement.

Kansas City is considering building its own jail to house inmates, but no decisions have been made. So, that possibility is still years away.

City leaders now need to accelerate efforts to develop both short- and long-term solutions. They can’t afford to let another inmate escape or die on Heartland’s watch.

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