Those of us working on my campaign for Jackson County executive have been going door to door throughout the county shining a light on the crisis at the Jackson County Detention Center. We are all raising a voice for detainees, correctional staff and our community at large, all of whom are adversely affected by the toxic conditions at the county jail.
Last August, global architecture and engineering firm HOK released its facility assessment report on the jail. HOK determined that the entire four-building complex was in a “poor to failed” condition based on its age, design, deferred maintenance and concerns about safety, security and staffing, among other glaring issues. The conclusion: The county jail is an outdated, dangerous and unsanitary environment for all those who enter it.
Yet with this report in hand, and with calls from the county legislature to move toward a replacement facility, the current county executive last November opted to form another committee to study the failed jail yet again. It was to provide a report in six months.
But eight months later, there is still no report.
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Instead, our community waited and watched as a correctional officer was brutally assaulted on Thanksgiving Eve, as multiple female detainees were raped, as sewage backed up into cells, as detainees waited weeks for clean clothes and bedding, as violent crime persisted in our community, and as a grand jury report this May demanded immediate action.
I am here to tell you this is a full-blown humanitarian crisis — and also a public safety and moral crisis. This is the most important infrastructure issue facing our county today.
For too long, the county jail recipe has been to cram more people than can fit into a nine-story cage, defer maintenance for decades, provide unsafe and unsanitary living quarters, skimp on essential services, understaff the facility while underpaying those workers, and eliminate human decency — then shake real hard, release and repeat. The final result is persistent violence in the jail and throughout Jackson County.
We can and must do better. As a former Missouri state public defender, I have seen the operations of many county, state and federal detention centers. It is possible to treat detainees with human decency and to support a correctional staff with sufficient resources. That is why I am advocating for a two-center solution.
The current Jackson County jail is at the same time too big and too small. It is too big in that it stands as a looming nine-story cage in the heart of Kansas City, creating a negative psychological imprint on our community and all those who enter it.
But it is also too small. When it was built in 1983, its design failed to anticipate the explosion in detention populations — the result of over-criminalization and the methamphetamine and opioid crises.
The two-center solution proposes a smaller facility in downtown Kansas City, and another in Independence to serve the two separate Jackson County courthouses. Each should have a separate female annex to eliminate sexual assaults. This would cut the population from the current facility in half, allowing for manageable populations for the correctional staff while creating an environment where essential services for mental health, substance abuse, education, anger management, spiritual counseling, chronic homelessness and employment placement could be efficiently and effectively delivered.
By providing centers that treat people humanely, we can begin to lower recidivism rates and drive violent crime out of our community.
If we can renovate ballparks, build a billion-dollar airport, expand the streetcar, develop downtown and fix our sidewalks and bridges, then we can — and we must — address the greatest infrastructure crisis facing our community today.
The future of the Jackson County Detention Center and our community’s public safety are in our hands. The time for action is now and the county needs an executive who will act. It’s time to build Jackson County together.
Matthew T. Merryman is a Democratic candidate for Jackson County executive.