Jackson County legislators continue to express concerns that County Executive Frank White Jr.’s plans for a task force to study corrections issues will delay moving ahead on a new jail. They said current jail is unsafe and said the county needs to move quickly.
“To delay all of this, I’m not comfortable with. … We’ve got the jail in crisis mode,” said Legislator Dennis Waits, D-Independence.
Legislators have said a 2015 task force and consultants’ reports this year – including one that described “an outdated, failed jail complex” – have given them the information that officials need.
“It’s obvious to me that we need a bigger jail, maybe with room to expand,” Waits said.
White said his task force doesn’t have to get in the way of that.
“I’m saying one doesn’t stop the other. … There’s no delay here at all,” he said.
White says various sizes for a new jail have been thrown out, but that answer is not clear.
“Nobody really has a formula for getting to the right number,” he said.
The jail in downtown Kansas City as of early this week had about 870 inmates. White, the consultants and others describe it as chronically overcrowded.
White has named a 17-member task force to look at underlying causes of overcrowding, such as inequities in who can post bond and who can’t. He said county officials have to hear the community conversation on these issues.
“You can’t go to the taxpayer and say, we’re going to spend $200 million of your money and you have no say,” White said.
But legislators pressed their case for immediate work, and they stressed that last week’s attack on a corrections officer by an inmate was unacceptable. It was the third known attack on a guard since late summer, in addition to the rape of a female inmate last year.
Last week, the lone guard was in an administrative segregation unit, where inmates who have been particularly troublesome are held. They are allowed to move about for exercise and other things, one at a time for one hour a day.
In this case, that lone inmate got behind the guard and attacked him, knocking him unconscious and continuing to beat him with a plastic cone. The jail has cameras, but none are monitored around the clock except for inmates on suicide watch. The guard was beaten for seven or eight minutes, officials have said.
“I don’t find that acceptable,” Waits said.
“I understand where Denny’s coming from,” added Legislator Crystal Williams, D-Kansas City. “We’re all very, very frustrated.”
“Why,” she asked, “do you have the same management team … when incident after incident after incident occurs?”
“I understand what you’re saying,” White said, but he added, “I have complete confidence in the team we have over there.”
“I don’t,” Williams responded.
White said the root of problems at the jail is overcrowding, and the said the facility has been deteriorating for years, a situation he inherited when he became county executive nearly two years ago. He’s been playing catch-up at the jail, he said, and he said safety and security are the top priorities.
“It’s not safety and security when I have constituents who get raped in that jail,” Williams said.
Legislator Alfred Jordan, D-Kansas City, also stressed the eight-minute gap.
“There needs to be specific action to make sure that never happens again,” he said.
Jordan and others said the time to act on a new jail is now.
“I’m tired of talking about this. I’m tired of people getting hurt,” said Legislator Dan Tarwater, D-Kansas City.
Drawing from the list of specific and immediate needs identified by the consultant in September, the county has a list of $16 million in projects for the current jail. (A new jail is probably four years off, officials say.) White’s office has added other projects such as work at the downtown Courthouse, for a total of $30 million, and he said the money to service that bonded debt is in his 2018 proposed budget,
But legislators said that money is county reserves – one-time money – and would only cover one year of bond payments, not the 20 years of payments that have to be accounted for. Chair Scott Burnett, D-Kansas City, said that needs to be worked out before legislators adjourn for the year in two weeks or so.
Tuesay’s exchanges between White and legislators were pointed but seemed less contentious than others in recent weeks, a point picked up on by Legislator Tony Miller, D-Lee’s Summit.
“I like the fact that we’re talking. … We’ve got to put personality aside, and we’ve got to talk about process and we’ve got to talk about a plan.”
“Because,” he said, “what we’re doing ain’t working.”