Grand jury rips conditions, safety and spending at Mo. jail

A grand jury report condemns conditions at the Jackson County jail, saying it puts the safety of inmates and employees at risk

By Jeff Fox
The Examiner, Independence, Mo.

JACKSON COUNTY, Mo. — A grand jury report condemns conditions at the Jackson County jail, saying it puts the safety of inmates and employees at risk, as well the county's citizens.

The report, released late Friday by the office of County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker, says increased county spending on the jail in recent years does not appear to have improved conditions. It underlines points made previously in reports by consultants the county has hired: too many inmates, too few corrections officers, bad food, unclean living conditions, unsafe working conditions for staff, violent criminals being released into the community for lack of space, inmates feeling unsafe in their cells because there are too few guards to protect them.

"The jail's problems stem from a systemic failure to plan and/or to address its well-documented problems," the report says. "The responsibility for the failures fall(s) on the Jail's management and the County's Administration."

It also writes, "The tax payers of this County have paid for multiple studies concerning the Jail and yet there has been little improvement in the conditions and treatment of inmates. ... And we respectfully demand action."

A task force appointed in late 2017 by County Executive Frank White Jr. to study jail issues was initially given a six-month schedule, but that time is nearly up, and it's unclear when the task force will forward its recommendations. It's next meeting is in five weeks.

White took issue with the grand jury's findings and with Baker.

"The Prosecuting Attorney is using this report as a political opportunity to point out decades-old problems of deferred maintenance and attribute them to the current administration," a statement from White's office said. " ... The Prosecuting Attorney's report appears to be the product of both misinformation and a strong desire to incarcerate more people pre-trial. Widespread issues regarding facility conditions, staff retention and overcrowding persist at detention facilities nationwide. However, issuing redundant reports and finger pointing is not a solution."

But others sided with the grand jury.

"This. This is what I've been raising so much hell about. Grand jury reports a filthy, crowded Jackson County jail. Where's the money going?" tweeted County Legislator Crystal Williams, D-Kansas City.

Legislator Tony Miller, D-Lee's Summit, added via Twitter, "Based on the historic population needs of this County, it is clear that we need a larger facility to safely and securely house inmates in the interest of our public safety."

That echoes a finding in the report – and one made urgently by a consultant last summer – that "it is evident that the Jail built in 1984 is too small for the corrections and public safety needs of this County and the Kansas City Metro area."

Specifically, the report says judges and prosecutors have been "forced to repeatedly take measured risks to allow individuals charged with even violent or serious crimes to leave custody and go back out into the community prior to trial because of space issues" and those choices "have real consequences for the citizens of the county."

The grand jury, empaneled at Baker's request, says the County Legislature has approved ever-increasing jail funding recent years and says Director of Corrections Diana Turner -- named to the job by White in late 2017 -- and her team "give us all hope and we are certain there are many more employees who are of the same caliber."

But it singles out White and his chief of staff, Caleb Clifford, for criticism. It cites a "fragmented management system" and takes White to task for what it sees as him distancing himself from jail funding issues and for saying the County Legislature "really makes most of the decisions." In fact, the report says, the Legislature has consistently approved jail funding requests and overall funding has risen significantly in recent years.

The grand jury writes that Clifford "was condescending and derisive of our task of reviewing the conditions of the Jail and reporting on them" and that jail issues are complicated and "therefore, we could not understand them."

Among the specific findings:

• At least twice last year, inmates using smuggled cell phones communicated the murders of key witnesses in their cases. Those witnesses "believed they were safe because the individuals that they were going to testify against were in this Jail. They were wrong."

• "The inmate living spaces are not safe. Inadequate staffing commonly creates a scenario where inmates believe they cannot depend on COs (corrections officers) for safety protection," the report says. "In this situation, inmates seeking protection turn to other inmates. Fights and assaults take place regularly ..."

• The report mentions the two publicly known assaults on corrections officers last year. "These brave women and men are outnumbered by the inmate population," and that "creates a scenario where it is all but certain that the COs cannot perform any oversight or control of the inmates."

• "The living spaces are not clean. Toilets and sinks are dirty and often leak. Insects and mice are present in inmate living spaces. Mold is present in showers."

• "Meals are often cold, sometimes delayed, and occasionally not served." That forces inmates to can afford it to sometimes buy food from the commissary.

©2018 The Examiner, Independence, Mo.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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