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Staffing problems continue as two guards receive prison sentences

by Jordan Green

LEXINGTON – Before a Davidson County jury convicted Ronald Parker of involuntary manslaughter, the former detention officer made a strong case for why Carlos Claros-Castro, a Honduran immigrant who worked as a short order cook at Elizabeth’s Pizza in Thomasville, did not have to die.

The jury had heard exhaustive testimony about how Sgt. Brandon Huie, a Davidson County Sheriff’s deputy who had been pulled off street duty for disciplinary reasons, entered Claros-Castro’s cell alone to retrieve a broken mop handle after the inmate had angrily slashed it in a downward motion between the bars of his cell.

When Parker, the shift supervisor on Jan. 7, reached the cell he found Huie and Claros-Castro locked in a wrestling match on the lower bunk. After the beating that followed, Claros-Castro began spitting up blood and stopped breathing, jailers believe, before he was removed from his cell.

Parker and Officer Michael Shell, who was also on duty at the time, agree that Huie should not have gone into the cell alone.

Parker and his lawyer, Walt Jones, gave a demonstration on the last day of trial showing how Claros-Castro could have been subdued without the use of deadly force. Parker held a large plastic shield inscribed with the words “resistance futile,” and with his legs spread in a broad stance gradually walked towards his lawyer, who played the inmate, until he was pinned up against the wall. Ideally, he would have two additional detention officers behind him to provide assistance, Parker said.

“We would do that in a stacked manner,” he said. “If the inmate had a weapon we would hold up the shield’…. You’re pushing, pushing until the inmate is against the wall. You’re holding the person against the wall like this. The second person holds the hands, and the third person holds the feet.”

The night Claros-Castro died Parker said only five detention officers on duty, himself included, were responsible for upwards of 270 inmates. Huie and Shell supervised the new jail, where Claros-Castro was housed. A female officer handled the women’s floor; another male officer worked the old jail; and Parker worked in the office processing new inmates and taking calls from bail bondsmen.

The first mistake was that Huie took matters into his own hands, Parker suggested. The second mistake was not having enough staff available to handle emergencies. In the past uncooperative detainees like Claros-Castro would have prompted a call to an emergency response team that included outside help from patrol officers, Sheriff David Grice has said, but the team had long been disbanded.

Not surprisingly county officials are distancing themselves from Parker, their convicted former employee.

“Maybe he’s an expert, and maybe he’s not,” said Larry W. Potts, vice chairman of the Davidson County Commission. “I don’t think he’s elected by the people of Davidson County.”

Under examination by his lawyer Parker told the jury the state standard for officer-to-inmate ratio is one officer for every 10 inmates. By that calculation, there should have been 27 officers – more than three times the jail’s normal staffing level of eight officers per shift.

Contradicting Parker’s assertion, prisoner advocates and representatives of correctional associations ranging from NC Prisoner Legal Services in Raleigh to the American Correctional Association in Alexandria, Va. say there is no standard because there are too many variables to make a broad-brush recommendation that will fit every detention facility. The Guilford County Sheriff’s Office, which has lobbied the county for a new jail to ameliorate overcrowding, searched in vain for such a standard.

“There is no published standard,” said Maj. Herb Jackson, who supervises the county’s three detention centers as commander of the court service bureau of the sheriff’s office. “We compared our staffing with other counties in North Carolina. We looked at Forsyth, Orange and Durham counties. Some of them have one officer for every forty-five inmates. Some have sixty. That was in an acceptable range.

“We have one officer for every 125 inmates,” he said. “Crazy.”

On Aug. 16, the day Jackson spoke to YES! Weekly, 517 detainees were housed at the 397-person capacity Greensboro jail.

Considering that the Davidson County Jail had at least one detention officer for every 58 inmates on Jan. 7, raw numbers alone would seem to not fully account for the violence that occurred there. As Potts and others note, training and retention also factor in to the jail’s ongoing staffing challenges, and make correcting problems complex and difficult. Then too, the jail competes with schools and health care for funding, and pre-trial detainees exercise little clout in county politics.

“Our problem is the same problem that other counties have had,” Potts said. “It’s not a matter of creating the slots; it’s a matter of finding the people to fill the slots. I think the problem is finding people who are willing to do the jobs and get the training to be a detention officer, not just work interim until they get their training to become a deputy.”

According to January 2005 figures distributed to the county commission, the average salary for a Davidson County detention officer was $26,976, compared to $42,047 for a detention officer in Guilford County.

“Retention is a problem,” said Michael Hamden, executive director of Prisoner Legal Services. “That is a function of the difficulty of the work, the long hours and the low pay. Our society generally does not appreciate the extent to which correctional officers protect the public.”

The sheriff’s office requested funding to hire additional detention officer, but County Manager Robert Hyatt declined to include the request in his recommendations, and the county commission passed a budget in July that did not provide for the new positions. According to county budget documents, Sheriff Grice requested $3.9 million for the jail. Hyatt said he recalls Grice asking the county to fund five additional positions.

When the budget was passed, the county allocated $2.9 million for the jail for fiscal year 2006-2007. While that amounted to an extra $91,561 over the previous year, in a county where the overall spending has increased over the past four years the jail’s share of that budget has steadily shrunk. As a taxpayer-supported county service Davidson County’s jail ranks seventh in expense, after the schools, public assistance, law enforcement, health care and ambulance service.

If the county’s fiscal outlay for the jail was less than dramatic, it wasn’t because the matter was not discussed.

Minutes from the commission’s June 1 meeting reflect that “Hyatt noted a request for additional detention officers in the sheriff’s department. He asked about consideration of pre-trial release to reduce numbers of inmates in Davidson County Jail.”

Later in the month the commission received notice from staff that staffing difficulties continued at the jail.

Lt. CM Tarleton, then head of personnel at the sheriff’s office, wrote to Hyatt: “Positive retention has become a real concern of Davidson County Detention Center. It is the request of Sheriff David Grice that the starting salary for a Detention Officer 1 be raised from $26,352 annually to $27,637.”

Inadequate staffing levels for detention officers might result in neglect or brutality, as was seen on Jan. 7 with Claros-Castro’s death, but detainees have also died in custody because of preexisting health problems. According to news reports and Grice’s own account, at least two inmates died at Davidson County jail in the summer of 2005 because of health problems, including pneumonia in one case and a stroke suffered by a man with cocaine in his system in another. In that regard, competent nurses are critical for preventing illness and death.

On the same day Tarleton conveyed the sheriff’s request to increase pay for entry-level detention officers, Human Services Director John Dean wrote the county manager to urge him to hire two temporary nurses, who would work at the jail with no benefits, until a full-time position was filled. The county had recently hired someone for the job but the candidate backed out at the last minute.

“At the present time we only have one nurse working in the detention center,” Tarleton wrote in his own letter. “The nurse is taking on-call 24/7 and performing all the duties of two nurses. We are currently exhausting all efforts in an attempt to fill the open full-time nurse position.

“The detention center cannot afford to lose the only nurse we have now,” he added. “It is imperative that the temporary positions be approved to maintain the medical operations of the detention center until the full-time nurse position is filled.”

Maj. Chris Coble, currently the head of personnel at the sheriff’s office, said the jail is currently operating with a full cohort of eight detention officers for every shift. The sheriff’s department is still trying to put together a new emergency response team. A new major, Jody Shoaf, has been put in charge of the jail. And starting salaries have been increased to about $28,000.

“We’re trying to correct the problems that we might have had by updating the policies and procedures manual and making sure our staff has the training they need,” he said.

Coble, like most of the leadership at the sheriff’s department along with the county’s elected leaders, is aware of the microscope of scrutiny under which the jail has been placed by federal law enforcement and outside media attention. The FBI has completed an investigation and forwarded its recommendations. Spokesman Ken Lucas in the agency’s Charlotte office told YES! Weekly on Aug. 17 that the FBI forwarded all documents gathered in its inquiry into Claros-Castro’s death to the US Justice Department’s civil rights unit in the last month.

But Hamden of Prisoner Legal Services said the problems faced by the jail are symptomatic of a wider dysfunction. Society has become increasingly punitive, requiring counties to lock up more pre-trial detainees, he said, but taxpayers are generally reluctant to pay for the increased staff and facilities needed to care for them.

“You have to balance public resources,” Hamden said. “Schools are in bad shape. Public hospitals are having difficulty. Against this, you weigh the needs of detention centers. Almost everybody in jail is a poor person. People who are affluent or middle class are able to post bail, but people who have no money end up spending time in jail awaiting trial.

“It is a complex subject, and one that has broad implications for our society, and it’s not easily addressed or resolved,” he added. “In terms of the political overtones, I can’t think of a single instance that a person running for public office lost because he advocated we lock up more people. It is a platform that always pays dividends.”

To comment on this story, e-mail Jordan Green at jordan@yesweekly.com

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