Jail in crisis: Taxpayers will foot the bill to solve numerous problems at Jackson County jail

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- Study after study by high-priced consultants tells an embattled county government how to solve the problems at the Jackson County Jail. But critics say Jackson County isn’t listening.

Instead of taking the dramatic actions the experts recommended -- including an increase in employee pay and building a new jail -- County Executive Frank White has appointed a task force to study the problem for another six months.

But Ruth Garrison doesn’t need a task force to tell her what’s wrong.

Ruth Garrison

“They need to clean that jail out,” said Garrison whose only son died in the jail last year, three hours after being booked. He was one of four deaths last year at the jail.

“I just miss him so much,” said Garrison who was shocked that night to receive a phone call informing her that her 35-year-old son was dying.

Garrison’s son Richard DeGraffenreid was agitated when he arrived at the jail. Jail employees placed him in a straight jacked, strapped him to a wheel chair, put him in a cell and ignored him, the family’s attorney John Picerno said.

DeGraffenreid’s final hours were captured on surveillance video.

“Anyone who watches those DVDs -- it’s heart breaking,” Picerno said. “He should have been taken to the hospital.”

A court order prevented Picerno from sharing the video with FOX4. Jackson County also wouldn’t allow us to see it, saying it’s part of a criminal investigation.
That’s in stark contrast to how quickly the county released video of a jail guard being viciously assaulted by inmates last year.

As lawsuits against the jail mount -- there are more than 20 that could soon be filed -- the county has placed a gag order on jail employees. They aren’t allowed to talk, but privately they told FOX4 that, despite recent improvements, life at the Jackson County Jail is still a mess.

Rapes are common, deaths are often suspicious, and living conditions are inhumane.

Jackson County has reason to be worried.

Last year, a jury awarded $10 million to the family of an inmate who died at the county jail in Tulsa, Oklahoma. That judgment will be paid by taxpayers, just like the money paid to settle lawsuits in Jackson County.

Attorney Nick Dudley is representing an inmate who said he was repeatedly raped while a guard watched and gave his attacker drugs. Federal indictments also allege that guards are on the take.

“To me, the most striking part of that is how cheap it is to buy a guard to smuggle in narcotics and cell phones,” Dudley said.

How cheap is it? According to the indictments, $100 was enough to bribe a guard, though some held out for $500.

So how do you solve a mess like the Jackson County Jail?

Consultants say bad guards thrive there because the pay is so low that they are rarely fired. Management knows it can’t find replacements in a jail where hardly anyone wants to work and nearly 40 percent of the jobs can’t be filled.

Jackson County Detention Center

The solution? Raise starting salaries from the current $12.60 an hour to $20, consultants advised. That would allow the jail to compete with pay in neighboring counties.

Secondly, tear down the more than 30-year-old jail, which was built for 700 inmates but houses more than 1,000. Consultants say its design makes it costly to operate and would be impossible to remodel to meet current codes. Plus, the pipes leak raw sewage into the cells.

A new jail is estimated to cost $300 million.

“There is no doubt there needs to be a new jail,” said Jackson County Sheriff Mike Sharp.

What's preventing that from happening?

Sharp said the only man who can answer that question is Frank White.

The county executive remains unconvinced that enough study has been done to determine whether the county needs a new jail and – if it does – what size that jail should be.

Jackson County Executive Frank White

“Well I don't want to get ahead of the game,” White said.

That’s why he’s appointed a task force -- though only one member has actual jail experience. White said the task force is examining the entire criminal justice system to determine how the jail problem should be tackled.

He said the task force will also help rally public support for whatever solution it determines is necessary.

White pointed out that he’s already started fixing problems with the current jail. He has appointed interim jail director Diana Turner -- the first person in that post in more than a decade with real experience running a large jail.

She’s improved training for guards, fired bad guards and started conducting random raids to clear the jail of contraband and crack down on those bringing it in.

Turner disagreed with the jail’s harshest critics who declared it among the worst jails in the country after four inmates died and seven guards were indicted last year.

“I'm sure that's not the case,” Turner said. “It does have some physical plant problems. It does have some staff shortages.”

Diana Turner

Turner insisted that if pay increases come through as promised by the Jackson County Legislature, she will be able to hire more staff. But those promised increases are already months behind schedule.

Part of the problem is the legislature and the county executive are in battle with each other over what to do with the jail. Legislators believe White is stalling for time on doing the inevitable -- building a new jail.

They say time has run out.

If life at the Jackson County Jail doesn’t get better soon, it’s possible a federal judge could order to shut down the jail.

That would cost taxpayers millions more because the county would have to pay to place inmates in jails outside the county while also building a new jail.