Grand jury releases report on Jackson County jail conditions; demands action by county leaders

KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A grand jury of Jackson County citizens has released a report on the conditions of the Jackson County Detention Center, demanding action by county leaders.

The report says Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker ordered for a jury to form. Jackson County residents formed the grand jury in August 2017 to examine the county jail. Members of the jury were reportedly selected at random.

The jury says the county executive's chief of staff was condescending of the jury's review of the jail. According to the report, the chief of staff said he was worried some county residents would make "sweeping statements and large decisions" about issues that are "messy" and "complicated."

Regardless, the jury says its members spent thousands of hours gathering information about the conditions at the jail and forming recommendations to improve the jail.

The "report is the culmination of that work and represents hundreds of hours of testimony, review of material, writing and their own walk through the facility," Peters Baker said in a letter released with the report.

Jackson County Detention Center

Summary of jury's findings:

The jury's report says the jail is overcrowded and understaffed, which it argues negatively impacts the entire county.

The grand jury's report says the county's justice system releases inmates charged with serious crimes because there is no room for them in the jail.

The jury also argues the inmates who are housed at the jail live in unsafe conditions. The reports says some inmates have pleaded guilty to crimes just to get out of the jail.

"In many of these instances, that means the individual is choosing prison, a historically harsher environment, over this jail," the report says.

The jury acknowledges this problem is not unique to the past few years. The report says the jail has been overcrowded since it opened in 1984.

But, the grand jury argues the danger is not limited to inmates.

In 2017, the report says authorities believe inmates were able to obtain cell phones, which they allegedly used to communicate with people outside the jail and organize murders of witnesses to crimes.

The jury also argues that the condition of the jail impacts the county financially.

"In the prior 5 years alone, the taxpayers of this county have spent over 120,000,000 on the maintenance and operations of the jail," the report says.

The report argues at the center of these problems and many others is the jail's management. Management and county administration argue the jail's struggles are the result of under-funding.

The jury, however, says its members are concerned about how available funding was managed.

According to the report, from 2010-2017, the jail's budget increased from $20 million to $28 million, but in some years, spending exceeded the budget by $2 million.

The jury said it found that, since 2016, the county legislature has approved every request for jail funding.

"These findings raise questions about whether the funding requested by the jail was/is sufficient and what specifically happened to the dollars budgeted and spent for this jail's operations and facilities," the report says.

In regard to under-staffing, the grand jury says the jail does not have a staffing plan that details how much staff is needed to safely operate the jail. The jail also does not have an employee dedicated to recruiting personnel. Instead it relies on websites, job fairs and word of mouth, according to the report.

Recommendations: 

To improve the management of funding, the jury's report recommends a review of the county's financial policies; a review of the corrections department's budgeting practices; and a review of staffing strategies, including operations, recruitment and overtime.

To improve cleanliness and maintenance, the jury suggests a review of policy for cleaning inmate spaces and a review of protocol for planning and fulfilling repairs.

To improve safety and security, the jury recommends a review of the frequency and manner in which fire and emergency evacuation drills are conducted; a review of fire suppression and sprinkler systems; and a review of all available alternative staffing options.

To improve overcrowding, the jury's report suggests working to fully understand the problem, meaning the  jail's data system needs to corrected.

The jury's final recommendation is that the court convene another grand jury one year from now to determine if improvements have been made

Background: 

The jury's report comes months after reports of inmate deaths, searches for contraband and numerous other issues at the Jackson County jail. Rapes are common, deaths are often suspicious, and living conditions are inhumane.

See a full timeline of past incidents and reports involving the Jackson County Detention Center at the bottom of this story. 

In the past, study after study by high-priced consultants told an embattled county government how to solve the problems at the Jackson County Jail.

Consultants said bad guards thrive there because the pay is so low that they're 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.

Consultants' proposed solution? Raise starting salaries from the current $12.60 an hour to $20. 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 about 700 inmates but now houses more than 1,000 at times. Consultants said 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.

Instead of taking the dramatic actions the experts recommended, County Executive Frank White appointed a task force to study the problem for six months.

The 17-member task force is still evaluating the jail and may release its findings later this summer.


FOX4 breaks down the major sections of the grand jury's report below.

Overcrowded and understaffed:

Graphic courtesy grand jury report

The grand jury's report involves a detailed history of the jail from 1984 on and indicates it has been overcrowded from the beginning.

On any given day, it’s common for the jail to house more than 900 inmates. However, the report indicates capacity for the state-level portion of the jail is 754 inmates, and using safe industry guidelines, the proper classification would be 680 inmates.

At the same time, the jail population was growing and facing increasing problems with overcapacity, the staffing levels and number of experienced corrections officers dwindled.

In a seven year period from 2007-2013, the jail lost more than 50 corrections officers who left their jobs.

“This number ballooned to 119 COs departing in 2015 alone,” the report states.

The report notes that the loss of corrections officers also meant the jail was replacing officers who had experience, with officers who had less time and experience in a corrections setting.

Safety and security: 

The grand jury's report breaks down another key area of concern, the failure to plan for safety and security.

The report indicates that the Jackson County jail fails to practice fire and emergency evacuation drills on a regular basis. With about 900 inmates locked behind closed doors on an average day, the ability to effectively evacuate the jail in the case of a fire or other emergency is critical.

Although no state regulations exist on this topic, national standards recommend fire and evacuation drills quarterly. The Grand Jury report indicates that the jail has conducted only one drill since the middle of 2016. Even then, the report says there was no active drill, but a sergeant or lieutenant would quiz the on-duty corrections officer about how an evacuation should be carried out.

According to the report, the drills conducted by the jail are not documented adequately to indicate the problems that need correction.

"The fire drill report sheets show an inability to find working keys to open staircases to exit the facility," the report says. "Other sheets showed delays in getting inmates out of living spaces because inmates were confused about what to do during a drill."

The report also sites problems with the equipment, including fire extinguishers that are near their expiration date, and the fact that fire extinguishers were not tested monthly as they should be. There were no indication that the sprinkler system had been subject to testing.

The grand jury report also raises big concerns with the inability of staff to supervise inmates, given the conditions of the jail. It is careful to note that the corrections officers are dedicated and working hard to do their best, but that the inmate to officer ratio is far too high, and that video cameras are not set up to see all areas of the jail.

The report notes that in one case, two corrections officers were stationed on a floor to supervise 190 inmates. There are not enough officers to prevent and intervene early in a situation and keep it from escalating. Then the absence of cameras allows blind spots where the corrections officers would not feel safe about their ability to enter the modules and supervise inmates.

Another key topic is the issue of contraband in the jail. The report indicates illegal drugs and cell phones along with other forms of contraband are getting in through a variety of ways -- the postal service, corrections officers and staff who’ve been compromised, and items passed to inmates during visits.

The report notes recent steps taken by the jail to control contraband, including a June 2017 raid of the jail facilities by a joint task force of state, county and federal law enforcement agents. The report recommends raids like the one from last summer should happen more often.

Cleaning and maintenance: 

The report found the jail spaces were not properly maintained or managed, and filthy conditions pose a risk to the wellness of both jail inmates, and to the health and safety of employees at the jail.

It also indicates that because basic maintenance was ignored for decades, the facility itself is in a greater state of disrepair.

Photo courtesy grand jury report

Upon inspection during a tour of the jail, they found "sinks with standing water, toilets that do not flush, persistent leaks that cause hazardous wet floors, caked feces on toilets, and mold in showers."

The report also notes a lack of clean bedding and clothing for the inmates, as well as inadequate facilities for washing those items, or cleaning supplies for the inmates to maintain their own spaces.

The report states, "Regardless of the reason for an individual's placement in the jail, there is no excuse for inhumane conditions of confinement. Likewise, the staff and COs at the jail deserve a clean and hygienic environment in which to work."

The report indicates that the filth in the facility was a concern in 2007, and was recommended as a goal to improve. Yet a decade later, an audit found that nothing had improved. In February of 2018, grand jury members themselves toured the jail and observed feces caked on toilets, dirty water fountains, discolored and dirty bed sheets, trash in cells and carcasses of dead birds in the outdoor recreation space.

Photo courtesy grand jury report

When confronted with the findings from the tour in February 2018, jail management denied it was facing a challenge to manage overcrowding and cleanliness at the jail. Management stated the jail is understaffed and underfunded, and even claimed the problems with the toilet were from hard water deposits and not feces. The report notes that the chief operating officer of the jail claimed this, despite never having personally examined the interior of cells at the jail.

Managing funds: 

The jury's report says county leaders and jail management did not accept responsibility for the jail's funding. In fact, the jury says they routinely blamed factors they believed were outside their control, including previous administrations' decisions or the county's budget.

Members of the county legislature blamed the jail's management, which blamed the legislators.

Budget documents show the jail's budget -- which comes from money from the general fund, the health fund and the COMBAT fund -- has not decreased since 2010.

The jury points out the county jail took on the management of Kansas City police arrests, which they argue "was problematic not only for operations, specifically at intake, but also for funding."

"While the actual cost of care for an inmate per day is over $100 dollars, the contract for the housing of these new populations allocated only $55 per day per inmate," the report says.

Additionally, the jury found that the increased number of inmates resulted in more time for booking and intake, which is likely a contributing factor to an increase in employee's overtime in recent years.

In short, the jury says jail management failed to properly plan for its funding needs, which then meant the jail went over-budget.

"Since 2014, the jail has spent more than its actual budget in every fiscal year," the report says.

The jury argues this is not only the fault of the jail but also of the county legislature, which did not request additional information on the jail's budget.

"Rather it seems the county administration simply allowed the jail to continue to make in-year budget requests to the legislature," the report says.

The grand jury says this would not be acceptable in any other business, and therefore, should not be acceptable for the county jail.

The report also questions the use of the money that was provided. As an example, the jury cites the $1.6 million per year since 2010 for upkeep and maintenance. But despite the nearly $15 million budget, "the jail continued to deteriorate."

The jury's report also revealed funds were used without legislative oversight or approval.

County executive's response:

Jackson County Executive Frank White Jr. has issued the following statement in response to the report:

"Jackson County is committed to providing a safe and secure facility for inmates, staff and the entire community. Under the leadership of new Director Diana Turner, the County continues to make significant improvements to the existing facilities and operations. 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.

"The Prosecuting Attorney is using this report as a political opportunity to point out decades-old problems of deferred maintenance and attribute them to the current administration. Therefore, the County is disappointed with the conclusions reached by the Prosecuting Attorney.

"The Prosecuting Attorney’s report appears to be the product of both misinformation and a strong desire to incarcerate more people pre-trial. Widespread issues regarding facility conditions, staff retention and overcrowding persist at detention facilities nationwide. However, issuing redundant reports and finger pointing is not a solution.

"Additionally, the factually accurate portions of the Prosecuting Attorney’s report are largely regurgitated from prior evaluations and have been addressed or are in the process of being fixed.

"On November 27, 2017, the Prosecuting Attorney sent a letter to me, which stated, in part, ‘Spending more time to further study the overcrowded and unsafe conditions at the detention center is simply inappropriate.’

"It is interesting to note that the Prosecuting Attorney’s study of the Department of Corrections was ongoing at the time she made the statement and she continued that study for months after she released the statement above. In addition, while refusing to participate in an open process that involved the community, the Prosecuting Attorney chose to conduct a secretive process where her staff controlled the process and wrote the report.

"The problems faced by the County’s detention facilities will require the concerted action of everyone if we are to create sustainable change. These are complex issues and the Department of Corrections initiatives will continue to be evaluated and modified over time, as necessary, to achieve our objectives. We remain deeply committed to leading the efforts to address these problems plaguing facilities across the country."


A jail in crisis: A timeline of incidents at the Jackson County Detention Center

The male prisoners were able to obtain keys to leave their cells and walk freely through the detention center; they made their way to the female ward and enter the women's cells and sexually assault them.

The Jackson County Legislature approved a resolution  to pay $275,000 to the claimant who accused the county of “negligent acts” after an investigation found that the inmates were able to get the keys after a guard had left the keys in a cell door.

The victim said not only did the guard not help, but she actually gave cocaine to the inmate who attacked him.

The man claims he was locked in a cell with human waste, raw sewage, feces and urine for nearly a month.

"Just because somebody has been charged with crime doesn't mean we strip away all human rights and human dignity. That`s really what this case is about: protecting the basic human rights of anyone charged with a crime," attorney Casey Symonds said.

Symonds said his client's pleas to have conditions corrected went unanswered, and though he offered to clean up the overflowing, malfunctioning toilet himself, he was offered no supplies to so except a mop and a bucket.

Andrew Dickerson, 26, a correction officer, was accused of receiving $500 to smuggle two packs of cigarettes, a cell phone and a charger into the detention center. Dickerson then allegedly asked another informant if he'd be interested in paying him a monthly fee of $2,500 in exchange for being the only inmate on the fifth floor with contraband.

Jalee Fuller, 29, another correction officer, was accused of taking money bribes to smuggle contraband to inmates. Fuller allegedly made telephone calls and sent text messages to promote the conspiracy, and actually smuggled cell phones and other contraband to inmates at the detention center.

The incident is still under investigation, but a source close to the investigation told FOX4 the inmate was left locked up on a chair and was forgotten about. The inmate was eventually taken to a hospital where he died.

No detention center staff members have been charged in that inmate's death, but others have been accused of wrongdoing in other incidents.

Visitations were suspended, much to the dismay of friends and family who had expected a visit. Frustrated family members said they had taken off work or left work early to be admitted as visitors.

According to court records, 20-year-old Johnny R. Dunlap was in Pod C of the Jackson County Detention Center the Wednesday before Thanksgiving when he assaulted an on-duty corrections officer.

The officer was taken to the hospital in critical condition after suffering several injuries, including fractured facial and nasal bones.

  • In December 2017, Joe Piccinini, then corrections director for the county jail, turned in his resignation.

The next day Jackson County Executive Frank White announced a new leader: Deputy Director of Corrections Diana Turner now serves as acting director.

About 30 personnel from the Jackson County Sheriff’s Department and the JCDC’s Corrections Emergency Response Team were involved.

Former Jackson County Sheriff Mike Sharp said jail staff contacted the sheriff's department after they received information about possible contraband in jail cells. Jail staff said they needed help to conducting a successful search on such a large scale.

Although Sharp would not comment on what they are looking for or what's been found, he did say narcotic dogs were brought in to assist in the search.