Another Jackson County Legislature Session Dominated By Jail Problems

Nov 28, 2017

Jackson County Executive Frank White confers with his communications director before Tuesday's meeting of the County Legislature. The session was dominated by a discussion of problems at the downtown jail.
Credit Sam Zeff / KCUR 89.3

The Jackson County Legislature had a full agenda Tuesday morning but, once again, problems at the downtown jail dominated the session. After an hour of grilling County Executive Frank White, legislators decided to punt on other work before them.

The focus of several legislators was on the task force recently named by White. The Legislature once again said another task force is a waste of time. The time to act, a majority said, is now.

The meeting came a day after Jackson County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker bowed out of serving on the task force.

"Spending more time to further study overcrowded and unsafe conditions at the detention center is simply inappropriate," she wrote in a letter to White.

"We must act now," Baker said in an interview Tuesday. "Not only guards are in peril, but inmates are in peril and that story, frankly, doesn't get reported nearly as often."

Also on the task force is Jackson County Sheriff Mike Sharp, who said he will serve for now but suggested it is a waste of time.

“I think we’re just kicking the can down the road again," he said. “The citizens of Jackson County elected us, this group, to represent them. I think it’s up to those people that were elected to put a plan together.”

The Legislature must decide whether to build a new jail or try to fix an expensive and long list of problems at the current facility. White says the task force's work should not delay action by the Legislature.

"If they want to go out and put a tax for a new jail that's on them to initiate," he says.

As of Monday, the jail was 100 inmates over capacity and short 40 guards. White says his immediate job is to fix overcrowding.  “Overcrowding in our facility is the number one reason that you have a lot of incidents with inmates and also with correction officers,” he said.

There also was a call to shake up management at the jail.

"In any other universe you would have a new management team," Legislator Crystal Williams of Kansas City pointedly told White.

"I have complete confidence in the team over there," White replied.

"I don't," Williams shot back.

While not calling him out by name, Williams was almost certainly referring to corrections department director Joe Piccinini.

Baker agreed that new leadership is needed.

"I don't know how long you circle a problem and you don't make major change," she said. "The problem is serious. It's urgent and so it requires some pretty immediate action."

For now, Piccinini remains in charge. In a one-page memo to the Legislature, he reported for the first time on what happened on Thanksgiving eve when a guard was assaulted, landing him in the hospital in critical condition. His condition has since been upgraded. 

"The inmate assaulted the officer four different times during the incident. Video surveillance shows the officer was initially struck from behind," the memo read.

Police say it took eight minutes for back-up to arrive to aid the officer. Piccinini didn't address that long lapse of time in his memo other than to say that the "officer was issued, and had in his possession, a working radio that is equipped with a distress button.  The officer’s station has a duress alarm button and a working land line phone."

"There needs to be specific action to make sure that doesn't happen again," said Legislator Alfred Jordan of Kansas City.

Sam Zeff  is KCUR's Metro Reporter. He's also host of KCUR's political podcast Statehouse Blend Kansas. Follow him on Twitter @samzeff.