Editorial: Keeping jails safe for all

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The murder of an inmate in the Cabarrus County Jail and a recent settlement over a man’s death in the Davidson County Jail should get Rowan officials’ attention. Supervising inmates and the people who watch over them is demanding and costly work.
Cabarrus authorities say 17-year-old Jamal Wright of Kannapolis assaulted fellow inmate Timothy Andrew Parker, 23, of Concord, killing him by blunt force last month. The public usually has little sympathy for inmates of any stripe, but Parker was in jail on a marijuana-related probation violation ó hardly deserving of not being able to walk out of jail alive.
At the time, the accused killer was awaiting trial for failure to appear in court on charges of resisting a public officer and disorderly conduct. No other details about the assault or what precipitated have been released. But anyone who watches TV documentaries about prison life knows that ó even if the shows were only 10 percent true ó one of the biggest challenges for officers is protecting inmates from each other.
Then there’s the challenge of protecting inmates from officers themselves ó a sensitive subject here in a county with two prisons and an overflowing jail. In February, Davidson County settled a lawsuit with the family of Carlo Claros Castro, who was beaten to death in 2006 after being arrested for DWI in Thomasville and getting into a confrontation with detention center officers. The lawsuit sought $100 million and was settled for $1 million, so the financial loss to the county is not that great, but Castro’s family back in Honduras lost a father and breadwinner, and the county went through an ordeal. Furthermore, the two officers involved, originally charged with second-degree murder, each spent over a year in prison for involuntary manslaughter ó also a small penalty compared to a death, but still a serious blot on their record.
These cases suggest jailhouse killings are a common occurrence. Not really. Many more inmates die from suicide or intoxication. According to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, only 2.1 percent of the 1,054 deaths in county jails across the country in 2005 were homicides, compared to 47.8 percent due to illness (including AIDS), 27.1 percent that were suicides and 8.1 percent due to drug and alcohol intoxication. (Other categories are accidents, 2.5 percent, and the mysterious “other/unknown,” 12.3 percent.)
Still, the possibility of a homicide shows how much is on the line at the county detention center ó the lives of inmates and officers, the reputation of the Sheriff’s Office and the ability of the county to withstand lawsuits and drawn-out court cases. Let the Cabarrus and Davidson cases serve as strong reminders: All counties have an interest in keeping their jails well-staffed and their staffs well-trained.