A look inside: Are Hispanics profiled in prisons?

by Jordan Green

The case against two Davidson County sheriff’s deputies charged with second-degree murder, for the death of a 28-year-old Honduran immigrant in Thomasville in January, highlights a growing challenge for North Carolina, a state whose rural communities are being remade by Hispanic immigrant labor ‘— namely, how largely white rural law enforcement officers handle Hispanic inmates whose English language abilities and lack of documentation may leave them vulnerable to abuse.

Former deputies Ronald Parker and Brandon Huie, who lost their jobs in April, were scheduled to appear in Davidson County Superior Court on Monday for an administrative hearing. Parker and Huie are being tried by the local district attorney for the Jan. 7 death of inmate Carlos Claros-Castro, who died in the county jail. The NC Office of the Chief Medical Examiner ruled in March that Claros-Castro died as a result of multiple injuries, including blunt trauma to the head and asphyxiation. A second private autopsy, performed at the request of Claros-Castro’s lawyer, categorizes the inmate’s death as a homicide.

Claros-Castro, who worked at Elizabeth’s Pizza in Thomasville, was arrested for driving while impaired, hit and run and speeding, and was placed in detention at the Davidson County Jail before his death. An ‘“officer’s use of force report’” filed for an incident at 7:30 a.m. on Jan. 6 suggests that jailers found the inmate to be uncooperative.

‘“I was advised by officers that [the] inmate had been told twice to keep his clothes on, that he could not walk around the pod naked,’” the shift lieutenant on duty that morning reported. ‘“After speaking to Claros-Castro about the situation, he refused to go back to N-Pod. He closed his mouth and began blowing snot from his nose.’”

The report states that Claros-Castro later urinated in the shower, an act that angered his fellow inmates. Claros-Castro was killed more than 24 hours later in a struggle with his jailers. Sheriff David Grice has declined to release the ‘“officer’s use of force report’” filed for that incident, on grounds that it was part of an ongoing investigation.

A manager reached by telephone at Elizabeth’s Pizza on May 5 said Claros-Castro’s English language abilities were limited. The manager ‘— who, like his former coworker, speaks Spanish as his first language ‘— declined to give his name. He said he was uncertain whether Claros-Castro was a legal resident of the United States, but said he had been here less than three years.

‘“He was a good guy,’” the manager said. ‘“He didn’t have no problems with anyone for two and a half years. Then one day they took his life away.’”

Kristin Spruill, an advocate who works with about 40 inmates across the state through Corazones Esposados Hispanic Prison Ministries in Cary, said Claros-Castro’s fate fits a pattern of inmate-guardrelations fraught with difficulty.

‘“There’s definitely a problem; it mostly has to do with language barriers,’” she said. ‘“Out in the counties you’re not going to find too many people qualified to be deputies. You have to not have a criminal record and you have to have graduated from high school. And you’re not going to find too many deputies who are bilingual.’”

Rural Latinos are likewise perhaps less prepared to deal with law enforcement than their urban counterparts.

‘“The guys out in the counties are probably living around other people who speak Spanish rather than being in the city where they would be more likely to assimilate,’” Spruill added.

Data is difficult to come by on Hispanic inmates who have died of homicides and other suspicious circumstances while in custody in facilities across North Carolina.

That’s partly because homicides are so rare in county jails and state prisons that it’s almost impossible to draw larger conclusions from a handful of incidents, said Christopher Mumola, a policy analyst at the US Justice Department.

An August 2005 report by Mumola, ‘“Suicide and Homicide in State Prisons and Local Jails,’” found that of 128 inmate deaths in North Carolina during the years of 2001 and 2002, only two were counted as homicides.

When inmate deaths in county jails were compiled by ethnic group across the nation, Mumola found that Hispanics had the lowest mortality rates, with white inmates being twice as likely to die in custody as Hispanics. In state prisons Hispanics were more likely to die in custody than black inmates, but less likely to die in custody than white inmates. Hispanic homicide rates matched homicide rates for blacks and whites in local jails, but Hispanics were more likely to die of homicides in state prisons than blacks and whites. In both local jails and state prisons Hispanics were less likely than blacks, but more likely than whites to commit suicide while in custody.

The policy analyst said the Justice Department is prohibited from releasing information about inmate deaths by county because the numbers are so small the identities of the decedents would be easily determined and would violate confidentiality laws.

Spruill said because she doesn’t work with white and black inmates, she isn’t in a position to know which group gets treated the worst. But she believes more attention must be paid to law enforcement behavior toward Hispanic inmates.

She said she was only aware of one other recent homicide case involving a Hispanic inmate. Catawba County Jail inmate Ricardo Garza, who was also detained after a driving while impaired incident, was found not breathing with a broken rib and punctured lung after being strapped to a restraining chair in September 2005, according to a report by WCNC News, an NBC affiliate in Charlotte.

In another incident involving two of her clients, Spruill said a vanload of inmates being transferred from the Caldwell County Jail to the Orange County Jail were attacked by pepper spray by a guard in retaliation for an attempt by one of the passengers to urinate in a zip-lock bag. One of her clients, Ricardo Pacheco, suffers from asthma, she said.

The two inmates were sentenced in December 2004, Spruill said. Pacheco is serving a term in Petersburg Medium Security Federal Correctional Institution in Virginia; the other inmate, Jose Juan Garcia Nava, is serving a term in Beckley Federal Correctional Institution in Wisconsin. Spruill said the cases were never prosecuted because the inmates were transferred into federal custody.

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