Renovate or rebuild? New Jackson County Jail task force has big decisions ahead

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A new group is now tasked with deciding if Jackson County’s jail can be fixed or if a new one is needed.

"I have responsibilities here for safety and security of the inmates and the corrections officers," Jackson County Executive Frank White said.

In two separate studies, conditions at the jail have been described as a dangerous crisis that needs immediate attention. The county said it’s now time to get serious, and a task force is charged with finding the best path forward.

On the narrow windows of the Jackson County Detention Center, you can catch glimpses of the people locked up inside, and messages written on some of them reading "help us."

"It's like you're proven guilty as soon as you touch their floor," said Arnett McNeal, a former Jackson County Jail inmate. "From the holding tank to the whole jail -- it is just corrupt."

McNeal admits he’s landed in the Jackson County jail more than once. The longest stint was for 37 days, which he calls "sheer hell."

"I was housed at medical, which a person would think is the best part of the jail, but it's the worst part of the jail. Cells are flooding. Roaches," McNeal said.

McNeal also claims despite his medical history being well-known to jail staff, he didn't receive regular dialysis treatments for his kidney failure or medications to treat his HIV.

"Even though a person is in a situation, you still treat them with dignity and morals," McNeal said. "We aren't livestock. We're still human beings."

"We have to improve that," said John Fierro, the jail task force co-chair. "We can't put them back out in the community and not have proper medication or therapeutic support."

All the troubles with the Jackson County jail were exposed during a recent audit and separate facilities study, which found facilities in fair to poor condition with inadequate staffing.

The county said it plans to issue a $15-20 million bond to fund the most essential safety and security improvements and looking to bump guard pay to $15 an hour to help keep good staff.

The newly appointed task force will review short- and long-term solutions to make the jail better, while also studying alternatives to incarceration.

"There’s no denying tough decisions will have to be made," White said. "There’s no denying that moving forward first requires a holistic analysis of our community’s detention facilities and criminal justice system."

The task force’s big job is to recommend whether it makes more sense to do all the needed improvements to the current aging jail or build a brand new one.

"The premise has always been there that we need a new jail," White said. "We need to make sure we have enough study and back up to lead us in the right direction."

Starting now, the public is invited to send any concerns or suggestions to the jail task force. You can reach them at 816-881-6461 or by emailing jailtaskforce@jacksongov.org.

Next month, public listening sessions will begin. The task force is expect to submit its findings and recommendations to the county executive in six months.