Jackson County legislators on Monday plan to consider immediate steps to shift staff at the Jackson County Detention Center to put more corrections officers on the floors where inmates are held.
This comes less than two weeks after a consultant told legislators of short staff, described poor although improved conditions at the jail, and even suggested closing a floor to free guards to be moved elsewhere.
“It’s my opinion that it is now a crisis situation, that leaving staffing so low on any of those floors is dangerous,” consultant Jim Rowenhorst told legislators Aug. 3. “It is a significant threat to safety and security of not only the officers but the inmates because that lower level of staffing simply cannot adequately supervise the inmates, and they are unable to fulfill a lot of the tasks that should be done.”
The Legislature hired Rowenhorst’s firm in February and is awaiting his written report later this month. At the Aug. 3 meeting, however, he said action is needed immediately, before that report is submitted.
Scott Burnett, chair of the Legislature, said he’s asked County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker and Sheriff Mike Sharp for immediate ideas.
“I’ve asked them to get back to me next Monday,” he said after this week’s legislative meeting. He’s also asked County Executive Frank White Jr. for his input. The Legislature meets at 2:30 p.m. Monday at the Eastern Jackson County Courthouse, 308 W. Kansas Ave. in Independence.
Some of the possible staffing ideas, such as intake changes and shorter visiting hours, were floated at the Aug. 3 meeting.
Rowenhorst even suggested closing a floor. He cited reports of as many 190 inmates on a floor with only two guards. He said in housing areas the inmates are effectively running the jail.
“It is a crisis situation. Either you adequately staff a post or you shut a post down,” he said, adding by “post” in this case he meant a floor.
“So that’s the kind of bind that you’re in, and the kind of capacity measures that you may have to take …” he said.
Rowenhorst said there have been “great improvements” in living conditions during the several months he’s been reviewing the jail, but said, “They were probably some of the poorest … that I’ve seen in jails across the country.”
Also at the Aug. 3 meeting, Baker called the situation alarming, and Jackson County Presiding Judge John M. Torrence said the courts – judges, staff, lawyers – constantly lose time because the jail doesn’t have the people to get inmates to court appearances on time.
“This is a problem that’s been ongoing for many, many years, but it’s gotten to the point that it’s dysfunctional,” Torrence said.
The judge said attorneys – particularly female attorneys – are “frightened to death” to go to the jail, where they often have to sit for hours waiting to meet with an inmate.
“It shouldn’t be a half-day event to have a 10- or 15-minute conversation with your client,” he said.
And he had a comment for overall conditions at the jail.
“It is simply immoral,” he said.
Short staff also means there’s a longer wait to process offenders whom officers have arrested.
“When it takes an hour for a deputy to bring a prisoner in to drop them off when it should take 15 minutes, that’s an issue,” Sheriff Sharp said. “That takes a deputy off the road.”
The county’s human resources director, Dennis Dumovich, said turnover among corrections officers is about 40 percent a year. He said that’s largely because of pay, working conditions, the work load and relations with co-workers.
Rowenhorst added that the county is losing many guards before they’ve been on the job for even six months, and he said a jail can’t be sustainably run with a 40 percent turnover rate.
After reports of assaults at the jail in mid-2015 came to light and an FBI investigation was begun, a county task force reviewed jail issues and recommended higher starting pay for corrections officers. The county has bumped it to $12.60 an hour, that’s still below the metro area average. A jump to $17, closer to the average, would cost the county another $5 million a year, Dumovich said.
White was not at the Aug. 3 meeting but issued a statement later reiterating that improving conditions at the jail remains his top priority and that the problems neither arose overnight nor can be solved overnight.
On Monday, he wasn’t willing to go beyond that statement other than answering a staffing question by saying, “We’ve had staffing issues for the last two or three years.”
Then he waved off further reporters’ questions and walked off.
Some of strongest comments at the Aug. 3 meeting came from Sheriff Sharp.
“As you well know … the Sheriff’s Office in Jackson County has no real responsibility to the jail. It’s in the hands of the county executive to run,” he told legislators. “But unfortunately I’ve been put into a position where I’ve had to act, at the request of the prosecutor and at the request of the county corrections office early on to investigate crimes within the jail that were going unreported for years. And then once we stepped in and started to address the issues inside the jail, you saw record number of assaults – property damage – skyrocket.”
Sharp said he’s had two deputies assigned to the jail for two years, rather than having those deputies on the streets. He said conditions at the jail are getting better, but he also expressed concerns.
“One thing that needs to be made very clear is that there are good people working in that jail,” he said. “There are good people, and they deserve better than what they’re getting.”
He also said changes are needed.
“My problem, ladies and gentlemen, is there just doesn’t seem to be a real sense of urgency with a lot of this,” he told legislators. “And I’m in a business where things are urgent, at times, and that’s how I approach things. And I just – it boggles my mind how this got to this place. I just can’t get my hands around it.”