‘It’s simply immoral to allow it’- No quick, easy solutions for Jackson Co. jail problems

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. -- A special meeting of Jackson County leaders Thursday revealed problems at the Jackson County Detention Center that nearly everyone agreed need to be solved urgently.

The most recent incident happened Tuesday, when several staff members walked off the job, leaving the jail shorthanded. Visitations were suspended, much to the dismay of friends and family who had expected a visit.

That latest crisis prompted Jackson County legislators to call an emergency meeting.

A jail consultant and auditor was among the memorable speakers at the meeting, calling his first visit to the jail 'atrocious'.

"Living conditions were certainly not good. They were probably some of the poorer living conditions I've seen in jails across the country," said Jim Rowenhorst, correctional consultant.  "The staffing level was a concern that first visit.  On one particular floor, there were two officers who were to provide services to 190 inmates in eight separate housing units."

After the report by Rowenhorst's company, the county replaced nearly every mattress inside jail cells. Sewage and plumbing problems were also fixed and more than 400 new jail doors installed.

During Thursday's meeting, a significant amount of time was spent discussing staffing concerns at the jail.

"Turnover is really the main culprit, in my opinion, of this situation. In 2015, turnover rate was approximately 45 per cent with the implementation of some of these new initiatives, it's gone down to 41 percent and is currently trending at 40 percent," said Dennis Dumovich, director of H.R. for the jail.

The turnover and staffing problems lead to safety concerns, for inmates, staff and attorneys.

Jackson County Judge John Torrence told the legislature that since 1981, he has visited the jail many times in his career.

"It's just never been this way. It's never been this bad, and to be clear about it, this is not something that happened overnight. This is not something the current administration created. This is a problem that's been ongoing for many, many years. But it's gotten to the point now where it's dysfunctional" said Judge Torrence.

He said he's knows some attorneys fear for their safety when at the jail. He specifically mentioned female lawyers in the public defender's officer.

"They will be there, sometimes hours, trying to get their clients brought down the hall from their cell to the visitation room," the judge said, recognizing the real issues that arise when there's not enough staff to move inmates. "It shouldn't be a half-day event to have a ten, fifteen minute meeting with your client."

He also said the attorneys' are put in real danger because of insufficient staffing. Sometimes attorneys have to remain in a room with a client even when they feel threatened.

"If there's a problem, an emergency, and there's a button to push, the button is pushed and nothing happens," he said.

The staffing and turnover crisis is directly related to the work environment and the pay.

"Turnover is really the main culprit, in my opinion, of this situation. In 2015, turnover rate was approximately 45 per cent with the implementation of some of these new initiatives, it's gone down to 41 percent and is currently trending at 40 percent," said Dumovich.

Recently, the jail tried to address these issues by offering a 12-hour work shift, a bump in pay to $12.60 an hour and improved and additional hours of training.

"My opinion is any organization runs on its staff. Being a correction officer is a difficult job. It requires a lot of knowledge and a lot of skills to manage inmate behaviors. They're not guards. They're not just people who lock and unlock doors. They have to manage people's behaviors who really don't want to be there. That takes a tremendous amount of skill and a really unique person to do it," said Rowenhorst, the jail consultant.

Rowenhorst says some jails around the country now pay jail staff $20 an hour.

Legislators are expecting the auditor's full report and a county study of facilities, to be complete later in August. They say all options are on the table, including shutting down parts of the jail, hiring outside agencies to help with staffing and perhaps even a new jail .

Jackson County Sheriff Mike Sharp warned that he hasn't seen a sense of urgency in addressing the jail's concerns, and hopes this report will light a fire for action to be taken.

"It boggles my mind how it got to this place.  I can't quite get my hands around it," said Sharp.

This is just the latest in a series of problems at the detention center.

The incident is still under investigation, but a source close to the investigation told FOX 4 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.

Andrew Lamonte Dickerson, 26, a correction officer, is 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 5th floor with contraband.

Jalee Caprice Fuller, 29, another correction officer, is 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 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 says 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.

The Jackson County Legislature approved a resolution Monday 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.

FOX 4 will follow developments and decisions made about the Jackson County Detention Center as they unfold.