Records misleadingly show no Latinos in local jails

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by Eric Ginsburg

The Guilford and Forsyth county jails keep online databases of who is locked up at any given time, but despite demographic data collected, there is no category for Latinos/Hispanics, who are generally recorded as white instead.

A scroll through the list of 854 people being held as of Monday in the two Guilford County jails reveals that the overwhelming majority bear the same racial descriptor: “black or African American.”

Most everyone else, 247 in all, were categorized as “white,” except for six inmates listed as “Indian or Alaskan native” and an equal number as “Asian or Pacific islander.” In the only remaining category, nine individuals were listed as “other.” Where are the people of Latin American origin?

Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes says that’s the way it’s been for as long as he can remember. It’s not that there aren’t Latinos in the jail system — his jail is actually a hub for federal immigration detainees, the majority of whom are Latino — it’s a question of recordkeeping.

Barnes, the longtime Republican sheriff of Guilford County, said his department actually keeps a more detailed accounting of the backgrounds of people in its own investigations. So does the Greensboro Police Department. But when it comes to the jail, Barnes and his employees follow protocol set by the federal government.

“Actually that’s by order of the federal government,” Barnes said. “Latino is not a race that they’re recognizing. They categorize Latinos as being white. This is what we have to file with the government as far as the records that we keep. In our own personnel or investigative issues we have an area where we would put Hispanic or French or whatever they would happen to be.”

In addition to federal forms his department is asked to complete about who is being held in the jails not offering an option for Latino or Hispanic, Barnes said they’ve been specifically instructed to record Latinos as white. So how does the sheriff’s office, which runs the jails, know who is Latino in the first place?

“Hopefully we can ask them,” Barnes said. “We would get the information straight from the horse’s mouth.”

And then the inmate would be recorded as white, he said.

The same practice appears to be in place in Forsyth County, where none of the inmates on the jail roster are listed as Latino and several with Spanish surnames are categorized as white. Sheriff William Schatzman could not be reached for comment.

But the nearby Randolph County Jail database does make such a distinction, listing white inmates as either “White/Hispanic Latin” or “White/Non Hispanic.” There, 18 of the 215 inmates are recorded as Hispanic/Latino. And in Mecklenburg County, home of Charlotte, the jail roster simply puts an “H” in the race category for Hispanic detainees.

Deena Hayes-Greene, a Guilford County School Board member and the director of the Racial Equity Institute, takes serious issue with the procedure in Guilford County.

“How in the world are we going to be able to determine what’s happening to people of color if this is [the approach]?” she asked. “This whole process of labeling makes it hard to track inequity. One thing it can do here in Guilford County is suggest there’s not a disparity.”

Without direct information on how inmates self identify, it’s challenging to even go back and sort through the information to determine how many inmates might be Latino. As of Monday, 40 people in the Guilford County jails who are listed as white had Spanish names, and 17 of those were also federal immigration detainees. The other 23 individuals are mostly from the Triad.

Of the nine Guilford County inmates categorized as “other,” seven had Spanish names and of that, four were on immigration detainers. The remaining two names were Arabic and English. A cursory scan of the “black or African American” detainees turned up about five inmates of Latin American or Spanish heritage based on their names.

It is entirely possible that some, or even many, of the people with Spanish-language names self-identified as white or a different racial category, but without the data one can only speculate. Still, it appears that up to about 16 percent of those inmates listed as white may actually identify as Latino or Hispanic.

According to the most recent US Census data, 7.5 percent of Greensboro residents identify as Latino/Hispanic, less than the 8.5 percent of the population in High Point and the significantly higher 14.7 percent in Winston-Salem. A rough estimate of the Jan. 5 jail roster in Guilford County by Triad City Beat suggests that Latinos may only make up about 6 percent of the jail population.

But without more accurate data, it is still a guessing game. And without that closer, informed read, it appears that 28.9 percent of inmates are white rather than the possible 24.2 percent.

That’s significant, Hayes-Greene said, because it suggests that there is closer parity between the jail population and the larger community than there actually is. Such recording makes it hard to be aware of or track inequity, she said.

“For there to be some collective institutional impact, we have to have shared measurement systems,” Hayes-Greene said. “A shared measurement system is critical. It would go a long way in helping to elevate this conversation, move it forward, gain some clarity and get together.”

That means more than just common racial categories and recording mechanisms — it includes ways to talk about race and racism as well, she said. Different measurement systems, including ones that focus on access rather than institutional outcomes, can obscure undergirding racism in schools, banks, jails and other institutions, Hayes-Greene said.

Barnes said he sees the value of more detailed and accurate information on who is in the county jails.

“It would make more sense to be able to designate and be a little more reflective of who the person is,” Barnes said, “[but] they don’t let me run the train, they don’t let me ring the bell.”

But Sherry Giles, the chair of Guilford College’s Justice & Policy Studies department, said it isn’t that simple.

“The survey used by the US Census Bureau Annual Survey of Jails, includes nine options for identifying the races and ethnicities of people who are incarcerated, including several possibilities for people of Hispanic origin,” Giles said via email. “This discrepancy between the information collected about inmates in Guilford County Jails and the information about inmates requested by the Census Bureau for the federal Bureau of Justice Statistics is perplexing and raises important questions.

“Given that the Bureau of Justice Statistics annual survey of local jails asks for statistics that identify Hispanics, why does Guilford County continue to place Hispanics in the category of ‘white?’” she continued. “How reliable are the national statistics if they are based on erroneous information from local jails?”