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Bearing Witness

"No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck." Frederick Douglass

By John Cole Vodicka

Listen up. I invite you to come to the Athens-Clarke County courthouse on either a Wednesday or Friday morning. If you are there on a Wednesday, come to the 3rd floor at 8 a.m. Sit just outside Superior courtroom #2 on one of the benches or chairs that face the elevator marked "for security use only." Keep your eye on the elevator. If you are in the courthouse on Fridays, go up to the 5th floor around 10:30 a.m. Head back to the State Court and sit on one of the benches just outside this courtroom, facing the same "security" elevator. And, again, keep your eyes on the elevator door. At some point, whether you are sitting on the 3rd or 5th floor at those specific times, you will witness the elevator door open and, inside, find anywhere from one or two, or maybe even five or six, bound-and-chained, orange or gray jumpsuit-clad prisoners. They will be standing in the elevator's compartment, lined up one-by-one, accompanied by a sheriff's deputy. The deputy will lead them off the elevator, the prisoners' chains rattling as they shuffle into the courtroom, feet bound, hands cuffed and shackled with a belly chain. The prisoners have been brought up from the courthouse basement, where the "holding cells" are located. Once in the courtroom, the prisoners are assigned seats on the benches furthest away from the courtroom's entrance and the courtroom personnel and observers. The prisoners' presence cannot go unnoticed. When they sit down on the wooden pews, there are loud clanging sounds of metal meeting wood. The backs of their uniforms are stenciled "JAIL" or "CLARKE COUNTY JAIL." The handcuffs separate each hand by only a matter of inches and those cuffs are affixed to the belly chain so prisoners' hands are forced close to the waist. The ankle chains limit the wearer to baby steps when walking. The total effect is that prisoners are unable to sit or stand up straight, and, while in the courtroom, their bodies are forced into a perpetual slump, unable to even lift their heads up to eye level with those around them. When their cases are called, these defendants-- almost all of whom are pretrial and have not yet been adjudicated on the charges they've been jailed on--will hobble from the courtroom bench to a table that faces the judge and where their attorney is sitting. Often, as they are waddling to the table, a sheriff's deputy will have to walk up behind them to tug on their clothing, pulling their shirts down or their pants up over the cracks of their butts. With some prisoners, particularly those who are elderly or physically challenged, the deputy will have to help them steady their steps by holding their elbows or grabbing hold of the chains wrapped around their backsides. Still, there are prisoners who stumble, whose legs buckle, who trip over a chair leg, who practically fall out of the chair when trying to sit down next to their lawyer. "Your honor," announced one defendant as he sat in the chair at the defense table, "my pants are falling off. Can somebody pull them up for me please?" If a prisoner has to be sworn in for the proceeding, it is impossible for them to do as told and "raise your right hand." At best, an index finger can shoot up from the manacled hand. If the defendant is presented with any paperwork--guilty pleas, bond conditions, probation sentencing forms--he or she will have to strain to get their hands above the table top for a signature. If these defendants in pretrial bondage need to wipe away snot or tears, they are out of luck. As humiliating as all this has to be for those brought bound hand-to-foot from our jailhouse to our courthouse, it can get even worse. Prisoners in the courtroom must signal a deputy sheriff if they need to use the bathroom. Sometimes a deputy will ask out loud, "Number one or number two?" Number two requires, mercifully, that the handcuffs and chains be removed once the prisoner reaches the bathroom, which is located a good distance from the courtroom proper. No matter if its number one or number two, a deputy will be standing just behind the prisoner who's at the urinal or right outside the stall. For me, and for everyone on our courtwatch team, it is always shocking to see people--the vast majority of whom are African American--in shackles. It's something from the Middle Passage or Jim Crow era. It's humiliating and demeaning. And it certainly sends the message to defendants, as well as to courtroom personnel and observers, that all the rights the courts say people have--particularly that they are innocent until proven guilty--are essentially meaningless. For anyone who is jailed and is brought to an Athens-Clarke County courtroom, there ought to be, at a minimum, the appearance of dignity and self-respect of a free and innocent person. Instead, as the great-aunt of a Black defendant told me one day in the courtroom, "It looks like slavery days. It ain't human and it ain't right." Let's demand change! Please contact the following individuals to urge them to change former Sheriff Edwards' policies and UNSHACKLE ALL Athens-Clarke County pre-trial prisoners when they appear in our courtrooms! Sheriff John Q. Williams Chief Judge Eric Norris District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez Solicitor General C.R. Chisholm Overheard in the courtroom. It wasn't so much as what I overheard in the courtrooms this past week. It was what I saw.

  • A mother in tears as she spoke both to her child and the magistrate judge hoping to find a way to get her 18-year-old son out of jail and into an environment that would keep him safe and out of trouble. She felt she could no longer have him live in her house and that her sister didn't want him staying with her either. Making phone calls during Willie B.'s first appearance hearing, mama was finally able to confirm that her mother, Mr. B.'s grandma, would provide sanctuary to the young man pending the disposition of his felony case. Mr. B.'s mother was present in the magistrate courtroom during the hearing but she was only able to see her son's image on the judge's laptop. Despite this limitation, she was able to speak sternly and hopefully with her son. Mr. B. was granted a $6,000 OR (signature) bond, with conditions that he live with his grandmother, have a nightly curfew and get back into school.

  • A wife in tears, whose husband Lawrence J. was in jail, having been arrested on family violence charges. The woman was the victim. She was a travelling ICU-COVID nurse and worked at an Athens hospital three or four days a week. Emotionally and physically exhausted at the bond hearing, she broke down at several points while she attempted to persuade the judge she needed her husband at home. She asked that the magistrate judge give Mr. J. another chance. After determining what conditions could be imposed with a bond, the judge granted Mr. J. a bond totaling $1,000 good security (cash). As in Mr. B.s first appearance hearing that morning, Mr. J. appeared on video from the jail Booth while his wife sat in the magistrate courtroom in the courthouse.

  • Michael C., seeking an OR (signature) bond in State Court, sat in a courtroom pew waiting for his case to be called, was pissed. Mr. C. was in shackles and his attorney had just informed him that a condition of any bond would be that he be monitored, 24-7, by a "scram" device, meaning he'd be required to breathe into a machine each and every time the machine's alarm went off. These machines cost in excess of $100 to install, plus there is a daily $10 user-fee. Mr. C. shook his head, his handcuffs rattling against the wooden bench, and shouted at his lawyer, "It's all about the money! You know it is." After Mr. C.'s live-in partner--appearing remotely on the courtroom's TV monitor--told the judge that it would be impossible for her pay money to bond Mr. C. out of jail, unless she could somehow secure a loan from friends, the judge granted a $5,000 OR (signature) bond, but with the requirement that Mr. C. be hitched to the scram breath-monitoring device--at his expense--starting on January 31. Another condition of bond was that he have no contact with his partner of six years and is barred from her house.

  • Kevin G. also appeared in person in State Court his past Wednesday. Prior to his bond reconsideration hearing, Mr. G. sat--handcuffed, ankles shackled and wrapped in a belly chain--on the same bench where Mr. C. was sitting. Mr. G. had been in jail for one week because he had not been able to post a $2,000 good security (cash) bond issued at his first appearance hearing in Magistrate Court. When his case was called, the 41-year-old Mr. G. shuffled to the table and sat next to his lawyer. Mr. G. was charged with "exploit/inflict pain/deprive essential services to disabled person/elderly person/resident." The victim was his dad, who, both the defense and prosecution said, was adamant that he wanted his son to continue to care for him and that he (the dad) was not frightened or concerned about his safety. At one point during the hearing, Mr. G.'s mother appeared remotely from her home, explaining to the court that her son was not a violent person, but someone who cared about everyone and would give what he could to anyone he met. As his mother spoke, Mr. G., with head bowed, began crying. After his mom finished speaking, telling the court that Mr. G. could live with her until his case was adjudicated, Mr. G. leaned over to speak to his attorney. The lawyer then addressed the mother, speaking into the courtroom's camera: "You son wants to tell you he loves you." "I love you too, Kevin." Mr. G. was granted a $2,000 OR (signature) bond, but is barred, at least for the time being, from having any contact with his father.

  • Please remember, each of the four defendants above is a pre-trial defendant, and are entitled to a presumption of innocence as their cases move forward. Yes, we have a new district attorney in the house! Deborah Gonzalez became the district attorney for the Western Judicial Circuit of Georgia on January 1, 2021. She's hit the ground running. Already, at the outset of Ms. Gonzalez first term, it looks very hopeful for those seeking a more just and less repressive criminal legal system. The road ahead for our new district attorney won't be smooth, and she is certain to face stiff opposition by those opposed to her progressive--and aggressive--platform for change. She will especially face push-back from those private entities that for too long have been able to profit off of human brokenness. On New Year's Day, Ms. Gonzelez issued a remarkable 7-page memorandum to her assistant district attorneys and staff, titled "Fairness and Equity in the Western Judicial Circuit District Attorney Office." Please, please read this historic document! Here's the link: Jail roster

Tonight 346 women and men (up 21 from last Sunday) are confined in the Clarke County jail. 247 of this week's total are African American; 7 Latinx; 1 Asian American. There are 31 women locked away in our jail today. 45 (13%) prisoners have been in the jail for one year or longer. 72-year-old George F. remains in custody (since July); one 66-year-old is locked up, along with one 65-year-old; three 64-year-olds; three 62-year-olds; two 61-year-olds; and one 60-year-old. All told, 51 people (15%) 50-years-old and older are in confinement. There are five 18-year-olds and three 17-year-olds in jail. Over the last seven days local law enforcement arrested and booked into the jail 85 people (up 29 from the previous week), 55 of whom were BIPOC, and 26 females (up by 16 from last Sunday). 45 of those arrested were charged with misdemeanors. Of the remaining 40 charged with felonies, 9 were for crimes allegedly involving the harm or threat of harm to persons (aggravated assault, terroristic threats, false imprisonment). The majority of this past week's felony arrests involved probation warrants and/or drug offenses. There were also felony arrests for charges of theft by receiving, entering an auto, peeping tom and eavesdropping.


Here's Al Lawler's weekly update. Al, a long-time courtwatcher, lives and works at Jubilee Partners in Comer, GA:

As of Sunday morning, the Georgia Department of Corrections is reporting cumulative totals of 1,303 prison staff members testing positive for COVID (up 43 from the previous week), with 1,121 recoveries (up by 16) and 2 deaths. This leaves the system short 182 employees who are out sick. 2,703 prisoners have tested positive (up by 107), with 2,462 recoveries (up by 115) and 85 deaths (up 1). The GDC has postponed the reopening of the state's prisons for visitation at least until 1/8/2021. There were no holiday visits for families and friends whose loved ones are behind bars, the first Christmas season ever that Georgia prisoners have been denied visits.

John Cole Vodicka has spent over 40 years in the South as an activist, community organizer and writer. A graduate of LSU-New Orleans, John has worked since the early 1970s to challenge and dismantle the criminal legal system as we know it in Louisiana, West Virginia and Georgia. John lives in Athens, Georgia and, while mostly retired, coordinates the all-volunteer "Athens Area Courtwatch Project," which seeks to shine a light on what goes on in the Athens-Clarke County criminal courtrooms. He also researches and writes about lynchings that have occurred in northeast Georgia.

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Regina Smith
Regina Smith
Jan 05, 2021

Everyone in Athens should read this and understand what good, recently elected and appointed people in our justice system are trying to do for our citizens, both those bought before them and those who've never even had a traffic citation. It IS time for a change in Athens.

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