Jackson County legislators on Monday approved a $437,500 payment to settle a lawsuit at the heart of allegations of brutality at the county jail.
They also exchanged some sharp comments with County Executive Frank White Jr. over more recent incidents at the jail.
Legislators met in closed session Monday afternoon and then unanimously approved a $437,500 payment to James Ramirez, who alleged his constitutional rights were violated while in custody at the jail.
In April, four ex-guards at the jail were charged with federal civil rights violations, accused of kicking and punching Ramirez while he was shackled and handcuffed, causing a broken neck and other injuries. County officials announced that July 4, 2015 incident and others in August 2015 but said they had gone to the FBI within a week of finding out about the July 4 incident.
On Monday, three legislators – including Chair Scott Burnett, D-Kansas City – told White they had not been given a heads up by his office last Thursday before news broke that an inmate had assaulted a jail guard.
“And the last couple of incidents, we haven’t gotten calls,” said Legislator Crystal Williams, D-Kansas City. She said she gets constant questions from constituents about the jail.
“Well, you know, we try to be as forthcoming … as possible,” said White, adding that it might not be practical to try to communicate each incident to all nine legislators. Burnett said White’s office could contact him, and he’d pass on information to other legislators.
White said the jail, in downtown Kansas City, has significant challenges but is also getting his full attention and constant effort.
“I know my job is to get it right,” he said, adding that safety -- of inmate and of staff -- is a paramount concern.
“Just to let you know, things happen at the jail a lot …” he said, adding that the jail might not be any worse than others but since the 2015 incidents officials have tried to be more open and transparent.
Williams said she didn’t necessarily buy that characterization, and she mentioned an incident last August in which an inmate got a key and later got free within the jail and allegedly raped a female inmate.
“That’s old news. That’s old news,” White responded, adding that keys have been made more secure.
“I want you guys to understand there are some positive things also,” White said, pointing to better hiring and improved training. County officials have said low pay for guards and high turnover are significant issues, a point stressed by a 2015 county task force. White said national accreditation for the jail remains a priority.
He also encouraged legislators to become more involved with helping turn things around. He suggested visits to the jail, and he said he talks to graduating classes of new guards and tells them he knows they have a tough, thankless job.
Williams responded to that.
“I kind of resent the implication that we don’t care,” she said. White countered that he was only talking in generalities.
Legislator Dan Tarwater, D-Kansas City, raised the idea of posting sheriff’s deputies at the jail, at least for some time. Unlike many counties, the sheriff in Jackson County does not run or staff the jail.
“I don’t think we’re there yet,” White said to Tarwater’s suggestion. He said guards have to put up with a lot – inmates spitting on them, inmates flushing their jumpsuits down the toilet.
“And I don’t think having a policeman in there is going to make that big a difference at this point,” he said.
He also said, “But there are things that happen in the jail that we can’t control – what inmates do sometimes.”
White and legislators did seem to agree that a forthcoming consultant’s study will help them chart their next steps. Another recent jail report, initiated by White’s office, was done by former U.S. attorney Todd Graves. That report, at a cost of $139,600, has not been made public and probably won’t be as long as the issues in it are the subject of litigation, according to the county counselor’s office.