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Jackson County Corrections director defends new security measures as female attorneys allege ‘undue,’ disparate treatment

New metal detectors at a Kansas City detention center are hindering female attorneys from being able to do their jobs, several lawyers have said. But the Jackson County Corrections Department director remains adamant that the security measures are in place to protect staff, inmates, and everyone who visits the facility — and the women who work there daily haven’t experienced the same issues.  

To enter the Jackson County Detention Center, one must remove shoes, jewelry, and anything from pockets to pass through an X-ray machine. The individual must go through newly-installed metal detectors — which have reportedly been triggered at times by underwire in women’s bras.

Jackson County Corrections Department Director Diana Turner

Attorney Laurie Snell told KCUR she had to eventually remove her bra in order to pass through security last week to visit a client, putting it back on in an elevator. 

Both Jackson County Sheriff Darryl Forté and Jackson County Corrections Department Director Diana Turner have stressed that security officials have not asked anyone to remove any clothing, especially undergarments.

As a private attorney with an overly packed schedule, Tracy Spradlin said she doesn’t always know when she will be needed at the detention center, and it would be “burdensome” to dress every day in a way that won’t inadvertently trip the metal detectors or carry extra undergarments with her.

“To ask me to wear something that is not supportive or does not make me feel comfortable on the off chance that I might stop by the jail that day is ridiculous. Further, it’s ridiculous to assume that attorneys who have sworn an oath and have been vetted by the state of Missouri are going to sneak contraband in through their bra when there’s never been any indication an attorney in Jackson County has done that,” Spradlin told The Missouri Times.

Compromise or unfair restrictions?

In what she said was an effort to meet those who feel hindered by the detectors halfway, Turner issued a directive Thursday allowing attorneys who are unable to pass security to still visit with clients in what’s called a “non-contact visit,” meaning they can visit with clients, but not in a secured, private manner.

A little more than 30 percent of the detention center staff are women, Turner said, and are able to clear security without any issues. She said there are only one or two times per day when a lawyer has had an issue with the metal detector, and in some cases, it’s the same attorney each time.

“We think this is a reasonable accommodation here because we are mystified why our screening is a hurdle in the first place,” Turner told The Missouri Times.

But attorneys say this adversely affects women — who have already overcome obstacles in the male-dominated field — and inmates, most of whom are awaiting trial and have not been adjudicated.

“We have scratched and clawed our way to be taken seriously and to be able to treated fairly, and this is another undue influence on us that could potentially harm the ability for us to get hired onto cases and to get meaningfully involved in criminal trials and proceedings because once defendants find out they can’t meet with their female attorneys the way they can with their male attorneys, they’re going to stop hiring us or requesting us or ask for a different counsel,” Spradlin said.

“I don’t think it’s fair to treat people who are presumed innocent like they are second-class citizens, and they can’t have meaningful conversations with their attorneys.”

“I don’t think it’s fair to treat people who are presumed innocent like they are second-class citizens, and they can’t have meaningful conversations with their attorneys,” she said. “It is so hard to get valuable information from somebody in that much of a restrictive way.”

Attorney Sara Hofeditz Christensen said non-contact visits would certainly impede her ability to work with clients. During a recent meeting with a defendant, the pair was able to sit together and draw a diagram to help with his defense. 

“Developing that attorney-client relationship is vital to whatever the resolution is to that case,” Christensen told The Missouri Times as she drove to the detention center to meet a client. “If this is someone who is going to trust their liberty and freedom with me, not being able to sit down next to them is a huge detriment to how I work.”

‘Our job to make it safe’

Like most other prisons, Turner said the detention center is underfunded and understaffed. The security measures are in place to protect everyone at the facility — from employees to inmates to lawyers — and there have been issues with contraband brought into the center in the past, she said.

And earlier this week, an inmate allegedly assaulted an officer at the detention center.  

“i’m doing everything in my power to make this place safe, and unfortunately, good security is seldom convenient.”

Turner also said it’s unfair to characterize attorneys as being unable to bring contraband into the jail, even if he or she does not realize it.

“What we hear people saying for us, ‘Yeah it’s reasonable to suspect your people. Your staff is just [corrections officers]. We’re the educated elite … and we are not COs. We would never jeopardize your facility.’ I think that is elitist, and I don’t think it’s a proper characterization of our people,” Turner said.

“They want carte blanche, and they want privilege,” she continued. “They have an important mission to do, but so do my people. We’re trying very hard to make sure that the inmates get what they need and accommodate the apparent limitations attorneys are facing with this issue.”

Possible solutions

Dozens of lawyers, including Christensen and Spradlin, have signed onto an open letter — which the former helped spearhead — calling the policy “unreasonable and unnecessary.” And a peaceful protest has been scheduled at the center for June 12 at noon.

“It is undeniable that many female members of our group feel humiliated and angry at the prospect of having to get their undergarments cleared before being allowed to do their jobs,” the letter addressed to Forté, Turner, and the Jackson County legislature stated.

More than 70 lawyers, including state Rep. Mark Ellebracht, signed the letter, which was provided to The Missouri Times. 

“It’s already hard enough if you’ve got a client or maybe a judge or somebody you’re dealing with that’s sort of dismissive of women generally … and there are enough impediments in the occupation for women to break in and become respected,” Ellebracht told The Missouri Times, adding he’s seen improvements to how female attorneys are treated over the years. “But then something like this comes up.”  

He suggested the detention center alter the levels on the metal detectors. Others have proposed security officials use a wand on women who trigger the detectors or ensure a female officer is on hand pat down someone.

But Turner said a wand would only confirm there is something metal in that area and pat downs could result in a bevy of other complaints.

She said her staff has faced “serious abuse” from “outside parties” since the new metal detectors were installed.

“People have come in and argued with them, debated with them. We have had more than one tantrum,” Turner said.

“My hope is — at some point — their passion to serve their clients will overcome their aversion to this process,” she said. “My commitment remains to the officers and staff who work here, the visitors, and the inmates who live here. I’m doing everything in my power to make this place safe, and unfortunately, good security is seldom convenient.”

Lawyers have also noted the detention center never made a public announcement about the new security policy which went into effect mid-May. As of Thursday, a little more than 750 men and nearly 100 women were inmates at the detention center, located at 1300 Cherry St. in Kansas City.