New Sheriff Jeff Easter said “sweeping changes” are already under way at the Sedgwick County Jail, with more to come.
The changes are “based upon prior allegations, based upon current allegations and based upon the morale we have enountered so far over at the detention facility,” Easter said at a news briefing Wednesday.
Easter, who was appointed interim sheriff on Dec. 17, will be sworn in later this month.
Two Sedgwick County detention deputies have been charged with sex crimes within months of each other. David Kendall is accused of sex crimes involving six inmates over a two-month period covering late spring and early summer, and James Conklin is accused of sex crimes involving two inmates in October.
“That’s a problem,” said Easter, who defeated incumbent Sheriff Robert Hinshaw in the Republican primary and then handily won the general election in November. “We’re going to take some actions to hopefully prevent those in the future.
“We have to make sure our people are accountable … ensure we are providing the proper training and proper type of support those folks need that are working in that facility.”
Easter rose to the rank of captain during a 23-year career in the Wichita Police Department before running for sheriff.
In just his first week on the job, “we noticed a lot of issues within the jail,” Easter said.
“Our intention is to make that as safe as possible for the deputies that work there, the volunteers and also the inmates.”
Easter has implemented a policy allowing law enforcement officers to carry their nonlethal weapons – such as batons, pepper spray and stun guns – into the jail when booking suspects. That had been forbidden, he said, and “sometimes there’s incidents that happen … where officers have to defend themselves. This allows them to defend themselves again.”
Acting on a tip about trafficking inside the jail, several detention deputies and sheriff’s investigators conducted a sweep of Pod 17 on Dec. 20.
During the sweep, they found in various locations and in the possession of some inmates a total of 20 grams of marijuana, a cellphone and cellphone charger and 13 grams of tobacco, Easter said.
Two people may be charged in connection with the sweep – one for bringing the items into the jail and another for distributing them inside, he said.
More sweeps have been conducted since then, and more are planned.
“We are reviewing all processes of how contraband could be brought into the facility,” Easter said. “There are several different avenues,” and they need to be addressed, he said.
As authorities were conducting the sweep, they noticed “there was gang graffiti in almost every cell covering all the walls,” Easter said. “That’s not safe for anybody.”
The graffiti was drawn with pencil – the only writing utensil permitted to inmates – and jail staff cleaned off as much of it as they could.
From now on, any inmates who put graffiti on walls will be charged with vandalism, and inmates caught with contraband will be charged as well, Easter said.
“In the past, those cases were not presented as vigorously” to the district attorney’s office, he said. “We are very serious about that. That is our facility. It is paid for by public money. The inmates do not run that facility, the Sedgwick County Sheriff’s Office does.”
“The fact of the matter is, if they’re able to get a cellphone in, there’s nothing saying they haven’t brought in a knife or weapon,” Easter said.
As the sheriff, “it’s rather scary to sit here and say I can’t tell you without a doubt that we don’t have a knife or a handgun” in the possession of an inmate, he said.
The sheriff’s department budget already includes funding for a new camera system in the jail.
The current “antiquated” system does not record anything, Easter said. The system has gone out for bid, though no timetable for installation has been set.
During his campaign, Easter said he wanted to set up a jail oversight committee.
He said he has already reached out to people in the community and plans to have the committee in place by February.
He wants representatives from local businesses, mental health associations and other areas on the committee that can “start discussing what it is that we can do in that jail better,” Easter said.
“Whether we like it or not, the jail business is a business, and we need to reach out to folks that understand business and start latching onto those ideas and start implementing those within our own office,” he said.
Down the road, Easter said he wants to improve communication and cooperation with law enforcement agencies in the small towns around Sedgwick County.
He has already begun meeting with employees of the sheriff’s office, Easter said.
“They have to get to know me,” he said. “They have to trust me, and I have to earn their trust. And just by sitting up here talking, or just talking to them doesn’t earn anybody’s trust.”
You have to take action that backs up what you say you’ll do to earn that trust over time, he said.