By Tyler Schneider
The Jackson County Legislature voted May 9 to approve the construction of the new Jackson County Detention Center—a 450,000-square-foot, 1,000 bed facility at 7000 E US Highway 40 with a price now capped at $301 million after cost disagreements had stalled negotiations through the winter.
The “Jail Needs Validation Report”, a 97-page summary of the result of six studies—ranging from staffing and management to physical plant conditions and capacity needs—indicates that the Jackson County jail capacity is projected to grow to 1,204 by 2035. This estimate was made in tow with several assumptions, one of them being that Kansas City municipal offenders would not be housed.
The confirmed plan offers roughly 200 fewer beds than the report had recommended. County Prosecutor Jean Peters Baker has been firmly on the record as a skeptic on the decision to start this project at a lower capacity than would be needed over the next decade. The original, 40 year-old facility had already borne the consequences of skimping on size at the time it was built, she has said.
With that said, there is a lane left open for easier expansion with the possibility of adding additional 128-bed ‘pods’ to the facility for $10,000 each. The old jail has 760 beds but a functional capacity of 549. Occasionally, the number of inmates held there has exceeded 900, and overcrowding and physical deterioration are among the chief reasons behind the new project.
Much of the planning for the new detention center had come from the previous iteration of the legislature, which featured just three of the nine currently elected members. Dan Tarwater III, one of those former legislators who is now running for city council, was one of those chief decision makers and is a supporter of the pod expansion system.
“There are people that believe that jails are not necessary. I’m not one of them, but they are out there,” Tarwater said. “The people that are in our detention center need to be in our detention center. It is murder, rape, child molestation. We need the space,” Tarwater told The Telegraph last fall.
As far as the site of the prison, it will be built over what was until very recently Heart Village Mobile Home Park, before being purchased by the county in 2021. Initial complaints by residents led to justification on both sides as the city offered each of them a reasonable parting gift of $10,000 and a team to work with each of them in the relocation process.
“The people that lived there, if someone else would have bought this, they would have had 60 days [notice] to leave. We purchased it instead, and we helped them with moving packages. We moved them all and also gave them $10,000 each to be used for upgrades for whatever they wanted [in their new residences],” Tarwater said.
In the past, Tarwater has suggested using the old prison site as a homeless shelter.
Tarwater and current first-term legislator for the 1st District, Manuel Abarca IV, agree on the need for greater mental health services and reintegration programs within the facility. Basic programming, like GED and high school equivalency courses, would go a long way. But more could be done if space and staffing permitted it.
“Right now, I’ve got language that I’ve submitted, that requires programming inside the jail that would help reduce recidivism,” Abarca said. This would “be in place, funded, and defined prior to the jail opening.”
“Furthermore, I’ve added additional legislation that talks about creating a population control committee task force that would bring all the forces on the justice side with the courts, to prosecutor, the sheriff, the legislature and probably other community based organizations together to talk about what pretrial release programs can we have that would be effective.”
Ankle monitoring programs, he said, are one of the better known traditional examples of this strategy.
“What type of work release programs can we have so that we’re not just incarcerating people and locking them up into a cell—but truly talking about rehabilitation? How can we wrap around programs from that to make sure that people don’t even get into this system in the first place? It makes no sense that if we’re offering high school equivalency [programs] inside the jail, why are we not stabilizing programs outside of it to prevent people from being there?” Abarca said.
Discussion around the separation between Kansas City’s plan to construct a new municipal jail and the Jackson County project continue, although efforts to work together have been gaining traction in both governing bodies.