It was sometime last year when a bored group of cellmates at the Harris County Jail discovered to their surprise that they were white.
Sal Flores, Gerardo Martinez, Guadalupe Garcia and Sixto Galaviz, among others, got the news when they checked their prisoner wristbands. All had their race listed as white. Three other Hispanics in the cell, however, had wristbands designating them as "M," for Mexican, even though they were not Mexican nationals.
What Flores, Martinez and the others didn't know is that there are no Hispanics in the Harris County Jail. There are "Mexicans," even some who may have never set foot in that country, but there are no Hispanics.
Unless you're Asian or Native American, the Harris County Sheriff's Department says that if you're not black, you're white. The only exceptions are people who were first arrested prior to the mid-1980s, back when the term "Mexican" was still being used to denote Hispanics. Because the county's computer retains the data from the original arrest, veteran Hispanic arrestees still get issued wristbands denoting them as Mexican.
One powerful legislator says he's outraged that Hispanics are not being counted separately, because such information is necessary to monitor jail operations.
"That's the first I've heard of it, but if that's true, that is unacceptable," says state Senator Mario Gallegos. "If I as a state senator want to look at data on inmates, even just find out how many Hispanics are in jail, I can't."
Both a sheriff's department spokesman and the head of the county's data-gathering operation say they can't recall specifically when policy was changed to classify Hispanics as white, although one says it was within the last few years.
Sometime in the 1980s, says Jimmy Ray, director of the county's Justice Information Management System, the codes for African-Americans were changed from "N" for Negro to "B" for black, and the "M" code was changed to "H" for Hispanic. At some point after that -- sheriff's spokesman Captain Don McWilliams thinks it was three or four years ago -- the "H" was dropped.
"Someone complained, I think," McWilliams says. "He raised hell because he had been classified Hispanic and he was saying he was Spanish and therefore Caucasian."
"Hispanic" designates a person's ethnicity, of course, as opposed to race.
"It can get confusing, particularly when you're dealing with people whose ethnicity is Dominican, say, or West Indian," McWilliams says.
Still, not using any identifier also makes it difficult to determine if Hispanics are being jailed at a proportionately high rate, or are sitting in jail longer than whites or blacks because they can't make bond.
As of June 3, for instance, the jail held no Hispanics; there were 3,831 blacks, 3,674 whites, 31 Asians, two "American Indians," 92 "unknown" and 24 "other." (The "other" designation often is applied to gender-bending defendants who are difficult to classify, McWilliams says.)
The state prison system does include the category of Hispanic; about 25 percent of inmates are designated as such. Houston Police Department offense reports also include the category, but information stored on the statewide Texas Criminal Information Center computers does not.
"The choice I tell everyone to use if they're filling out something is 'unknown,' " says TCIC supervisor Linda Smith. "Use 'unknown' because of human error, because of mixed races -- if you have a black father and a white mother, what are you? ... I think in time all of it will go away, and you're just going to have designations for Male Black, Male White and Female."
Nationwide, the issue of law enforcement's use of race-and-ethnicity statistics is heating up. In April, Representative John Conyers, a Michigan Democrat, and U.S. Senator Frank Lautenberg, a New Jersey Democrat, introduced the Traffic Stops Statistics Act, which would require the federal government to study the frequency with which different races and ethnic groups are pulled over by police. U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno has already called for police departments to start collecting the information.
If you like this story, consider signing up for our email newsletters.
SHOW ME HOW
You have successfully signed up for your selected newsletter(s) - please keep an eye on your mailbox, we're movin' in!
In Harris County, Gallegos says, it doesn't make sense not to count Hispanics in the jail. "You're losing a whole race just on statistics," he says. "Especially when you're trying to rehabilitate people -- how am I going to get good figures on what's going on if I don't have any statistics just because they don't count Hispanics?"
He'd also like to know how many Hispanics are in jail when the counting is being done for the 2000 census. The population figures from that census will be used to redraw political districts across the county and state, and politicians hunger palpably for as high a count as possible of their racial or ethnic group.
But more important than the census, he says, is the ability to keep oversight on jailed Hispanics.
"It's not a count I relish, and I don't wave it as a badge of honor, but it's reality and it's life as we know it that there are Hispanics in the jail," he says. "We need that number, especially from the largest county in the state. It's important -- we need to have Hispanics counted if we are going to rehabilitate them.