The shortage of guards is bogging down the entire criminal justice system in Jackson County. Now, lawyers who meet with prisoners say they could be in danger if things don’t improve. Neil Nakahodo File illustration
The shortage of guards is bogging down the entire criminal justice system in Jackson County. Now, lawyers who meet with prisoners say they could be in danger if things don’t improve. Neil Nakahodo File illustration

Steve Kraske

A pile of poop sums up the chaos at the Jackson County jail

By Steve Kraske

skraske@kcstar.com

August 10, 2017 7:00 PM

Talking about poop is an indelicate way to begin a column.

But let’s do it anyway because there’s no more powerful way to get your attention about the ongoing crisis at the Jackson County jail than that ugly, smelly, disgusting pile of human feces. A public defender stumbled across it last month in a jail visitation room. He could hardly avoid it right there on the seat of a chair.

His best guess is that an inmate was waiting to go back to his cell, a security guard never showed up to escort him, and the inmate couldn’t wait any longer.

That pile speaks volumes. The jail is a stinking mess. It’s more lawsuits waiting to happen, more inmates waiting to get roughed up in a facility where prisoners rule the joint.

Editorial Board Facebook Live with Dan Tarwater & Crystal Williams

What should Jackson County do to fix a jail in crisis? The Star’s editorial board members Colleen McCain Nelson and Steve Kraske talked Wednesday, August 9, 2017 with Jackson County legislators Dan Tarwater and Crystal Williams. In this clip, the guests discuss the legislature's political relationship with County Executive Frank White.

Beth Welsh The Kansas City Star

One big issue: security guards. There’s not enough of them in an overcrowded facility, as evidenced by the poop encounter. In fact, the dearth of guards inside that jail undermines the county’s entire justice system. Already overworked public defenders must wait an hour — or two — to have even a five-minute conversation with a client because not enough guards are around to escort an inmate to a meeting.

Legal dockets clog up because there aren’t enough guards to transport inmates to court.

“It’s just never been this bad,” said presiding Judge John Torrence.

Then there’s the predicament that lawyers face on a regular basis as they seek to represent inmates in that facility. They know, and the inmates know, that pushing a panic button inside that jail is often for naught. “Nothing happens,” Torrence said.

At times, the mechanism doesn’t work. On other occasions, guards aren’t around to respond.

The problem is compounded — and made even scarier — by a new policy that bars anyone, including lawyers, from bringing cellphones into the jail. Administrators are concerned that they’ll be stolen or lost and wind up in the hands of inmates who can use them for all manner of nefarious things. A June FBI raid uncovered several of them.

But for lawyers who find that panic buttons don’t work, the lack of a cellphone leaves them still more vulnerable. That’s especially true when the power goes out, visitation rooms plunge into blackness, and an attorney is meeting with a criminal with a violent record.

“There have just been times when I’ve needed to have somebody come, and nobody’s coming,” one attorney told me.

The lack of oversight adds to an already toxic culture. Attorney Molly Hastings tells a story that will curl your toenails. Visiting the jail in mid-July to meet a client, Hastings found herself waiting for the session to start. That gave another inmate in a holding area the opportunity to expose himself and begin masturbating behind a window no more than 3 feet away.

Hastings told a guard what was happening. “Well, it’s a jail,” the guard said. And that was that.

“It really disturbed me,” Hastings said.

She has sensed a shift in jail culture. Chaos hangs in the air. Master cell keys disappear and wind up with prisoners. So do guard radios. Male inmates attack female inmates, incidents that Hastings said were once unfathomable.

All this, and still a plodding response from the county for overdue changes. That ugly pile of poop explains why Jackson County must get cracking.

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