Four Jackson County jail inmates, including an Independence man as well as another man awaiting trial in an Independence homicide, were charged Wednesday with beating a corrections officer who said he feared for his life.
County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker and Sheriff Mike Sharp expressed concerns – as they have before in recent weeks – about staff and inmate safety at the jail.
“This shouldn’t happen. This just shouldn’t happen. … We’re fed up with this,” Baker said.
“The operation of this jail must improve,” she added.
Sharp said the four inmates charged Wednesday are being sent to jails outside the county, possibly far from their families. He said the same will happen to other inmates if there are other attacks.
“You won’t stay in Jackson County,” Sharp said. “If I have to move you to the Bootheel, I will.”
The four inmates were in an area where only one inmate at a time is supposed to be out of his cell, but they laid in wait, isolated the corrections officer and attacked him with punches and kicks.
The officer suffered a concussion, a broken finger, a jammed finger and bruises. Joe Piccinini, the county’s director of corrections, said Wednesday the officer is now doing OK.
Baker on Wednesday filed felony charges of third-degree assault against four men: Tyrone E. Willard II, 20, of Independence; Stephen A. Curtner, 20, of Independence; Osiris N. Sneed, 20, of Kansas City; and Rodney V. Rodgers, 24, of Kansas City.
All were being held in the jail’s administrative segregation unit, meaning they had acted up enough while in jail to be separated from other inmates. The attack was around 10:30 p.m., Aug. 26. Rodgers was the only inmate who was supposed to be out of his cell. The corrections officer was doing inmate checks. He checked the cells on the lower level and then went to check the upper tier.
Then he saw Sneed run from behind a pillar. According to the report of the sheriff’s deputy who investigated the attack, Sneed told the officer “something to the effect of ‘we got you, we’re gonna (mess) you up.’”
“He knows what’s coming,” Baker said.
The corrections officer knew he needed to get off the landing.
“If they’d have gotten to him on that rail, they’d have throw him off that rail, and God knows what would have happened,” Sharp said.
The corrections officer showed the inmates that he was radioing for help, and he headed for the stairs.
“He simply must make that long walk down that corridor and walk down those stairs …” Baker said.
Sneed and Rodgers met him at the foot of the stairs and started beating him. Willard and Curtner ran in from the bathroom area. Willard joined the attack, and Curtner appeared to act as a lookout.
The guard was trying to keep his face covered as the men beat his head and upper torso. He told the sheriff’s detective later that he feared for his life. He initially declined to go to the hospital – he finished his shift – but headaches and a sore hand sent him there about three days later. He had a concussion, a sprained neck, and a broken pinkie. Then nausea and abdominal pain sent him back, and tests suggested the beating had interfered with the functioning of his kidneys.
Corrections officials have struggled with staff turnover and short staff for years. Piccinini said the administrative segregation unit is designed to be run with four officers on the floor and one in the control area. When the attack happened, there was the one officer on the floor and a second outside.
Asked how the inmates got loose, Piccinini first stressed that the corrections officer who was attacked is good at his job and did nothing wrong, and then said, “That is a staffing issue, a training issue, and an inmate management issue.”
Baker and Sharp showed about 20 seconds of video of the 90-second attack during a press conference Wednesday.
“What you just saw in this video was a corrections officer trying to do his job. … He was a target,” Sharp said.
Baker added, “I’ve watched that a number of times, and it just makes me angry watching it.”
Willard also was charged Wednesday in an earlier attack on a corrections officer at the jail. It’s a misdemeanor charge of fourth-degree assault. This also was in the administrative segregation unit. On Aug. 6, an officer was making the rounds distributing inmates’ medication. The officer said Willard cursed at him and punched him in the head several times, leaving him with a concussion and a swollen eye. Willard was already in jail awaiting trial in connection with a drug deal that turned into a homicide last December in Independence.
Sharp said the jail has many good, hard-working employees.
“And they deserve better than what they’re getting right now,” he said.
He said the same thing weeks ago when consultants described jail conditions that included overcrowding, frequent fights and too few checks on inmates’ welfare. One consultant called the situation “critical,” said immediate action was needed and even said if a section of the jail can’t be adequately staffed, it should be closed. Those conditions, consultants said, pose dangers to staff and inmates.
Baker on Wednesday wouldn’t blame staffing alone for the Aug. 26 assault.
“I think it’s pretty layered. I think it’s a lot of issues,” she said, mentioning overcrowding.
She said action is needed to address how the jail operates.
“That culture must change,” she said, adding that she wants to know when assaults happen and will look to bring charges.
Neither Sharp nor Baker run the jail, but both were open with their frustration with its ongoing issues. Other assaults have been reported. In June, two guards and and inmate were brought up on federal corruption charges, accusing to taking bribes to smuggle in cell phones and other contraband.
“We’re fed up with probably each of our weeks here at the county being filled with the jail,” Baker said.
The office of County Executive Frank White Jr. issued a statement Wednesday thanking Baker and Sharp for their work on investigating the August assaults and said, “It is my top priority to ensure that Jackson County operates a safe and secure facility. … I am confident that the serious nature of these charges will send a strong message that inmates who choose to engage in such dangerous and violent behavior will be held responsible for their actions.”
Another issue at the jail is low pay, which officials concede contributes to turnover. Corrections officers start at $12.60 an hour, and a recommendation to bump it to $15 hasn’t yet gone to the Legislature for action.
Baker said after the Aug. 26 attack, the corrections officer didn’t go to the hospital but instead finished his shift. She said he needed the overtime.