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Grand Jury: Time For Action On Crumbling Jackson County Jail Has Long Passed

Andrea Tudhope
KCUR 89.3
Last June, some 200 law enforcement officers raided the Jackson County jail for contraband. A former guard later pleaded guilty to corruption charges.

This story was updated at 4:15 p.m. May 12, 2018, with a felony charge against Jackson County corrections officer.

A grand jury tasked with reviewing the Jackson County Detention Center says the jail's management and the county's administration is responsible for the "systemic failure to address its well-documented problems."

The findings were released Friday in a highly critical, 72-page report detailing chronic issues at the jail of overcrowding, understaffing and poor management of funds. It also recommends measures to better track progress of changes.

"The time for action has long passed," the report stated. "We challenge our County Government to move past politics or elections."

The report called for more transparency when it comes to the jail's finances and recommends forming a citizens oversight committee. Though there have been complaints about inadequate funding for the jail, the report said that since 2010, the jail's budget has increased 40 percent, from $20 million per year to over $28 million per year. The report questions where that money went.

Read the report here

It also recommends the jail come up with an annual staffing plan so it's clear exactly how many people are needed to properly run the jail. Another suggestion is to hire private security companies to assist in patrolling and transportation to and from the jail; an audit conducted in August found corrections officers were outnumbered by inmates by a ratio of two to 190.

The report also urges the jail to recognize the extent of its overcrowding problem, which a detailed timeline that was included said began almost immediately after the facility was built in 1984.

"There has been little to no action and no clear plan to move the Jail forward into the 21st century," the report states. Built to hold 524 inmates, a class-action lawsuit over inmate conditions was filed just two years after the jail opened. From 2012 to 2016, the jail was charged with managing a population of approximately 900 inmates daily.

A day after the grand jury released its findings, the prosecutor's office filed a felony charge against a corrections officer for sexual conduct with a woman who is an inmate. The office said in a news release that Jaroyne Wright, 25, admitted to the contact, which was caught on jail surveillance video in late April. He was being held Saturday in another county jail on a $100,000 bond.

'We were wrong'

Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker requested a grand jury be convened to examine the jail in August. In a statement Friday, she said the work was so extensive, a second was convened in November to continue the work. The two grand juries spent hundreds of hours examining the detention center, subpeonaeing and contacting dozens of individuals and touring the facility. 

At the outset, "we believed that the conditions and operations of the Jail only impacted the inmates of the Jail. We were wrong," the report said. One recommendation calls for another grand jury to convene in a year to monitor how well the county is following up on the report.

County residents are affected by the deteriorating conditions at the jail, too, the report said. About $120 million in taxpayer money has gone toward maintaining and operating the jail over the past five years, and the report chastises management for its inability to properly handle the money.  

It argues overcrowding at times has led the jail to release inmates charged with violent crimes early, and it says that studies show inmates have pleaded guilty to crimes just to "flee the conditions." According to the report, that includes things like leaking toilets, times where they don't get meals, infestations of insects and mice and inconsistent access to attorneys.

Moving forward

In recent years, an extensive contraband bribery scheme was uncovered, involving inmates and corrections officers, one of whom pleaded guilty in April to corruption charges.

In November, County Executive Frank White attempted to tackle the issues through the creation of a dedicated jail task force. But shortly after its appointment, Baker refused her seat, urging that action be taken immediately. 

The grand jury report suggests White's task force duplicated one appointed by his predecessor in 2015. But whereas the previous task force called for a new jail — something he agreed was needed — White skirted that recommendation and decided to solicit input from citizens first. 

White issued a statement late Friday afternoon, saying the county "strongly disagrees with many characterizations as presented by the Prosecuting Attorney, but we will use this report, as we have with every other opportunity, to grow and better our facilities and operations for this community." 

White also said the report regurgiated previous evaluations of the jail, and he accused Baker of using the report "as a political opportunity to point out decades-old problems of deferred maintenance and attribute them to the current administration." 

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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