Jackson County faces millions of dollars in needed jail repairs – many of them immediate – and has a consultant’s recommendation to build a new, more efficient jail, though that option is years away and would need voter approval for funding.
More immediately, the administration of County Executive Frank White Jr. recommends raising the starting pay of corrections officers to $15 an hour, with longevity bonuses starting at six months, to get a handle on turnover running as high as 40 percent.
The county has “an outdated, failed jail complex,” Sonya Jury, a senior associate at consulting firm HOK, told county legislators Tuesday.
HOK recommends a new jail, saying a 1,000-bed facility “is trending in the range of $150 to $180 million.” County officials, however, said no decision has been made on the size of a jail to be pursued. The current jail houses more than 800 inmates, though its rated capacity is lower.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt that we’re headed toward a new jail,” said Legislator Scott Burnett, D-Kansas City and chair of the Legislature. White also said officials seem to be on board with the idea of a new jail.
White plans to ask the Legislature to hire HOK for a “master planning” process to be wrapped up by the end of the year. HOK said the design of a new jail would take a year and construction would take two years.
“We won’t be in a new jail for four years,” Burnett said.
White said the county has a responsibility to have a jail that’s safe for inmates, staff and the public.
“And upholding that standard will always be my priority,” he said, adding that the current situation is not adequate.
For now, HOK and a second consultant have new reports describing poor living conditions for inmates, poor working conditions for correctional officers and a four-building jail complex suffering decades of neglect.
“This deterioration did not happen overnight, and many factors have led to the current conditions,” Jury said.
The HOK report rated each building on a five-step scale from “failed” through “excellent” and only one building, mostly offices, rated as high as “fair to poor” overall. The other three each had about a dozen areas – heating and cooling, plumbing, electrical systems, fire protection, ADA compliance – where HOK said immediate work is needed.
Altogether, that work comes to $149.78 million, and county officials acknowledge that they’ll have to do much of that given that a new jail is years off and the needs are immediate. Those needs also expose the county to potential legal liability.
Even making those repairs doesn’t solve all the problems in buildings that Jeff Bradley, HOK vice president, said have “inherent inadequacies and deficiencies.” Even with a renovation, he said, “you’re still 30 years behind the times.”
HOK says the mix of inmates has changed since the nine-story main tower at the jail went up in 1984. There are more women, and maintaining separate male and female populations is essential, Bradley said. More inmates these days have mental health issues – the jail is in effect the largest mental health facility in the community, Bradley said – and the opioid crisis raises costs and complications. The current jail doesn’t have an infirmary.
“Every jail needs an infirmary, and should have one,” Bradley said.
A consultant hired by the Legislature describes deplorable though improved conditions at the jail including overcrowding of inmates, frequent fights, too few checks on inmates’ welfare, overflowing toilets, bathrooms apparently uncleaned for extended periods of time, and too little staff to manage hundreds of inmates.
“Immediate action(s) must be taken to provide sufficient staff for good inmate behavior management and to adequately maintain the facility, especially the living areas,” writes the consultant, CRA Inc., which reviewed records and made four visits to the jail from mid-April through early August. It noted improvement in sanitation during that time.
CRA calls the staffing issue “critical.” It’s the focus of the first of several recommendations – hire better correctional officers and do a better job of keeping them. The job requires training and experience, and high turnover is a huge obstacle, CRA stressed.
“It is important to note that full implementation of many of the recommendations depends on having a sufficient number of fully trained staff on duty, at the right place, at the right time, doing the right thing,” CRA writes.
CRA also recommends a comprehensive staffing plan, updated annually; a housekeeping and sanitation plan; and a comprehensive facility maintenance plan. It also urges updating overall policies and procedures for the sake of corrections officers, stating, “The format of the current policies and procedures is not short, concise, step-by-step instructions for officers to easily follow.”
The consultant lists several problems at the jail:
• “Crowded housing units making it more difficult to supervise inmates’ behaviors and to provide required service” and an “insufficient number of on-duty staff to perform all of the necessary duties associated with living conditions in the inmate housing units.”
• “Inadequate inmate supervision as evidenced by the large amount graffiti in cells; inmate fights out of view of cameras, and poor cleaning by inmates.”
• Bad living conditions “including poor sanitation, poor maintenance, unusable mattresses, missing shower curtains” leading to wet, slippery floors.
Sanitation is a particular concern.
“Toilets were very dirty, appeared crusted with feces,” CRA writes of an initial on-site site. “A female inmate said she had asked many times for rubber gloves and cleaner and she would clean all of the toilets” in her pod.
The report goes on, “Inmates from adjoining cells complained of flushed materials coming up in the other cell. Confirmed by observation,” and “The showers were very dirty and appeared to not have been cleaned for an extended period of time,” and “Showers without shower curtains caused wet slippery floors.”
The report does say sanitation has been improving. Cleaning supplies are available, and a jail staff member organized a crew of inmates to “thoroughly clean each housing unit.”
Administration officials on Tuesday described steps to hang on to more corrections officers, starting with a raise in starting salary to $15 an hour.
The county’s human resources director, Dennis Dumovich, said there have been “tiny strides in the right direction” in lowering turnover. He said the county needs to screen better and do a better job of hiring but said that’s not the main problem.
“Again, the answer is not in recruitment. The answer is in retention,” he said.
The retention issue came to light two years with a task force that recommended increasing starting pay, which was $11.45 an hour at the time. Now it’s $12.60 – the lowest among comparable facilities in the metro area, officials say. A $15, the county would be at the market rate, they say.
The raises would cost the county about $2.3 million a year, though achieving one of its aims – full staffing and less turnover – could significantly cut the need for overtime. The $2.2 million budgeted for overtime in 2017 has already been exceeded.
One legislator said she was disappointed that a detailed staffing analysis wasn’t part of the HOK or CRA studies.
“I guess I wonder how that fell through the cracks and how we address it from a management standpoint,” said Crystal Williams, D-Kansas City.
That issue would be part of the master plan, and officials say a better designed jail could greatly help control staff costs.