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Task Force Says Jackson County Corrections Officers Underpaid, Overworked


A task force scrutinizing the Jackson County Detention Center has found some serious HR problems. Overtime and turnover at the jail are on track to cost the county more than $5 million this year, and alleged abuse of inmates by guards at the jail sparked an FBI investigation.

The county task force also looked into a wider range of issues affecting the environment for inmates and staff at the facility. According to the task force, one problem is that corrections officers seem almost as anxious to get out of jail as the inmates do — guards only make about $25,000 a year.

“That just seems woefully, woefully ... they’re being underpaid,” says task force member Karen Curls.

County staff says that Jackson County correctional officers are the lowest paid in the area, as far as they know.  Guards quit in droves — about 150 this year.

If they’re good at the work, they can always find a job that pays better. That means the jail is perpetually understaffed, and the employees that remain face lots of mandatory overtime. County overtime pays time-and-a-half, but the extra shifts cut into guard’s free time, with little notice.

The task force says the third most common reason for quitting is disagreements with jail management. The county’s HR director says the resulting turnover alone costs more than $3 million. The jail is on track to shell out another $2 million in overtime pay this year.

Task force members are also concerned about the drug rehab, alcohol abuse and literacy programs in the jail. Budget constraints mean that these efforts are run almost completely by volunteers. The jail, for instance, offers Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, but they only come around once a week for men and once a month for women. That’s all the volunteers have time for.

Curls says she hopes a picture of a more comprehensive jail literacy and drug prevention program emerges in subsequent task force meetings. 

I’ve been at KCUR almost 30 years, working partly for NPR and splitting my time between local and national reporting. I work to bring extra attention to people in the Midwest, my home state of Kansas and of course Kansas City. What I love about this job is having a license to talk to interesting people and then crafting radio stories around their voices. It’s a big responsibility to uphold the truth of those stories while condensing them for lots of other people listening to the radio, and I take it seriously. Email me at frank@kcur.org or find me on Twitter @FrankNewsman.
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