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Jackson County Jail Officials Tout Improvements But Community Members Still Concerned

Andrea Tudhope
KCUR 89.3
At a public hearing on the Jackson County Jail Monday, Ebony Williams, who is the mother of an inmate, raised concerns that the jail's corrections officers are not properly educated.

Fewer than 20 people showed up to the first of two public meetings inviting community input on the embattled Jackson County jail, which has seen alleged sexual assault, inmate deaths, and bribery schemes.

Jann Coulson — a prison ministry volunteer who works with inmates at the jail — said that's because the public is frustrated to see elected officials trying to fix the jail "stomping over each other's feet."

"We have a paid consultant who's gathering the same data that a volunteer committee is gathering, which I would hope was part of the grand jury," Coulson said. "It doesn't seem to me like people are playing together nicely." 

Last August, an audit found the facility in crumbling conditions, and the Jackson County prosecutor convened a grand jury to examine the jail. In November, County Executive Frank White created a task force, giving them six months to conduct an analysis and gather community input. In May, the grand jury released recommendations, stating the time for action had long passed.

And Monday, Steve Davis, a consultant from Shive-Hattery hired by the county, said he was beginning a three-phase project to evaluate the jail, which involves collecting data.

Coulson called out Davis, and county officials, for not acting quickly. 

"This is an urgent matter," Coulson said.

But, Corrections Department Director Diana Turner said things have improved over the past two years.

Earlier this year, the starting pay for corrections officers increased from $12.60 to $15 per hour. Additionally, officer training has doubled, requiring at least 160 hours in the first year. Turner said the county has invested $4 million in safety and security upgrades for the facility, which so far includes repairing hundreds of cell doors, hiring a crew to clean each cell unit and repaint, and renovating locker rooms for officers.

"We haven't been sitting on our hands and ignoring, in the last few years, some of the improvements that need to be made to the jail," said Deputy Chief Operating Officer Mark Trosen.

Trosen emphasized work to ensure safety for both inmates and officers is ongoing. The small handful who provided their input Monday night were, for the most part, pleased that any improvements were being done at all. 

Nichole Aquirre raised concerns about proper medical provisions and mental health training. Aguirre's mother, ReGina Thurman, died as an inmate in the jail in January 2017. Ebony Williams is the mother of a current inmate. She said officers there need more education, and recommended peer sponsors to come back after they've gotten out of jail to mentor inmates. Community advocate Theresa Perry said there's unaddressed racism in the jail.

The task force hopes to present a report to County Executive Frank White by August, factoring in public input and data and recommendations gathered by the consultants. 

The next public input meeting will be held in July.

Andrea Tudhope is a reporter for KCUR 89.3. Email her at andreat@kcur.org, and follow her on Twitter @_tudhope.

Andrea Tudhope is an award-winning multimedia journalist based in Kansas City, Missouri. She is currently coordinating producer for America Amplified, a national public media community engagement initiative funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. 
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