Bearing Witness

"We must complain. Yes, plain, blunt complaint, ceaseless agitation, unfailing exposure of dishonesty and wrong---this is the ancient, unerring way to liberty and we must follow it." --W.E.B. Du Bois


Has our jail become an incubator for COVID-19? In last week's BEARING WITNESS, I reported that we'd been hearing from folks (both inside and outside the Clarke County jail) telling us that an area of the jailhouse experienced an outbreak of COVID-19. On Thursday this last week, partly in response to our concern, Sheriff John Q. Williams issued a statement to the media, essentially denying there had been an "outbreak" but at the same time admitting that five prisoners had tested positive for the virus. Sheriff Williams said any talk of a virus outbreak were "rumors." He went on to say that on either Tuesday (1/12/21), or early Wednesday (1/13/21), the jail "received our first positive results for 3 inmates" and these prisoners were "immediately housed" in the jail's medical unit for care and observation. The Sheriff stated that the unit where the prisoners were housed was "cleaned" and that later a private company was called in to "sanitize the areas that may have been contaminated." Williams said prisoners remaining in this unit were "placed in precautionary lockdown." The jail is monitoring those who "may have been exposed" and "has sought to provide testing for all who desire them." In the statement Sheriff Williams confirmed that two additional prisoners have since tested positive, insisting that the total number, as of Thursday, 1/22/21, is five. Let's pray that it is, in fact, only five prisoners who have been infected with COVID and that the virus hasn't spread further at the jail. Even if the Sheriff's information is accurate, his statement is far from convincing, and what he doesn't say makes it all the more concerning. First, let me say that I believe when five people test positive for the coronavirus who have occupied the same building or area of the building, that is an outbreak. It would be called an outbreak if this happened in a classroom, at a restaurant, in a nursing home. Sheriff Williams stated that prisoners were being tested if they "desire" to be tested. Last May, Sheriff Ira Edwards offered testing to the jail staff and prisoners but very, very few people--guards or prisoners--volunteered to get tested. The jail does not test incoming prisoners nor does it test prisoners upon their release from custody. Dozens and dozens of people are booked into the jail every week; likewise, dozens are released from confinement (bond, time served, etc.) on a weekly basis. (During the last seven days law enforcement arrested and booked 88 people into our jail.) Prisoners are apparently quarantined upon being booked into the jail, but my information says that these incoming prisoners are quarantined in fairly close proximity to one another and that there is a constant "coming and going" of prisoners confined in the area designated for quarantine. I have been saying for almost a year that the ACC sheriff's department needs to be totally transparent about COVID-19 and the Clarke County jail. The previous sheriff was anything but. My hope would be that our new sheriff, John Q. Williams--who promised transparency during his campaign--will begin to release not just an occasional and fairly vague "statement" about COVID protocols at the jail, but will issue weekly, even daily reports with the following information included:

  • The number of prisoners and staff who have been tested

  • The number of prisoners and staff have tested positive

  • The number of prisoners and jail staff have been quarantined

  • The number of prisoners or staff have been hospitalized

  • A log record showing each day/week is the jail sanitized

  • A description of the sanitization process And answers to these questions:

  • Is hand-sanitizer and hand-washing mandatory for everyone at the jail?

  • What are the plans to have prisoners and staff vaccinated, particularly those who are over 60 years of age, or those who have health issues that would make them more vulnerable to the virus?

  • And lastly, does the jail (or the private, for-profit medical provider) do "contact tracing" once a prisoner or guard either tests positive for COVID or who develops symptoms that are known to be COVID-related? Prisoners at the jail are transported in vans to the courthouse and sit close to one another during these trips. Likewise, some prisoners are made to sit side-by-side in the courthouse holding cells and courtrooms while they await their hearings. Prisoners in the courthouse not only come in close contact with sheriff's deputies, but also with courtroom personnel, including defense attorneys and probation officers.

Nationwide, it has become evident that prisons and jails are the perfect incubator for the coronavirus. Thankfully, if the recent official information is accurate, the Clarke County jail has mostly dodged a bullet. Please, please, let's do all we can to protect our prisoners and jail staff! In the long run, will protect all of us in the community. Courtwatch. Another week in the courtrooms, another week of finding the homeless, the mentally ill, the sick and disabled, people of color, and always the poor, appearing in front of a judge somewhere in the courthouse on Washington Street, their lives tethered to a criminal legal system that will now, or already has for many years, attempt to define their existence in our community. Come with me to Misdemeanorland.

  • Kameela S. is 17-years-old. Davian M. is 18. They are two African American youths who have been living in Misdemeanorland. Both of these youths appeared in State Court his past week on separate cases. Davian M. appeared remotely at a status hearing in response to the state's attempt to remove an earlier case from the "dead docket." In February, 2020, young Mr. M. plead guilty to criminal trespassing and damaging an item belonging to his mother. A part of his sentence was to get his GED and be evaluated for mental health treatment. He was also ordered to have no harassing contact with his mother. He was to abide by these conditions for six months, after which his case would be dismissed. Well, on August 1, 2020, just a few weeks short of the six months and having the charges dismissed, Damian M. was arrested, this time on the accused of possessing a weapon without a valid license. Now the State wanted to not only bring the young man back to court on the new charge, but also with the intention to revoke the "dead docketing" of his earlier case and punish him further on the trespassing charges. This might mean Mr. M. would be facing the possibility of jail time, or several years probation, fines and fees, electronic monitoring, mandatory treatment, and who knows what else. Shortly after Mr. M.'s case was continued, Kameela S. appeared virtually from her home. She's facing a misdemeanor shoplifting charge and is also alleged to have given the arresting officer a false name. She was arrested and jailed on July 25, 2020 and granted an OR (signature) bond. She first appeared in court and plead not guilty in September. She is continues to maintain her innocence, so this past week her attorney asked for a another continuance. She will be back in court his June--almost one year has passed since she allegedly stole a hat from Belk's store.

  • Haley W. appeared remotely in Magistrate Court on Friday. She was in jail, having been arrested the day before on a misdemeanor trespassing/criminal damage to property charge. Ms. W. is homeless. Her address is the Athens Homeless Day Shelter. Magistrate Judge Makin granted her an Unsecured Judicial Release (UJR--no cash) bond. Upon hearing the news that she wouldn't have to post money she didn't have to get out of jail, Ms. W. burst into tears with relief. But her journey through Misdemeanorland has just begun.

  • Carlos B. is also homeless. At his first appearance bond hearing he learned he had been charged with simple battery, a misdemeanor offense. Judge Makin granted Mr. B. a UJR (no cash) bond. But because Mr. B. had probation holds on misdemeanor charges from Barrow (fleeing and eluding a police officer) and Jackson (traffic offense) counties, he remains in the Clarke County jail tonight. Misdemeanorland knows no boundaries.

  • Sallie Mae T. was back in State Court, yet again, on this past Wednesday. I first met Ms. T. last August, when she appeared in State Court to determine the status of her then nearly year-old misdemeanor case. In September 2019, Ms. T. was arrested and jailed, charged with "physical contact of an insulting and provoking nature." At that time she was given a $1,000 good security (cash) bond, which she was unable to immediately post, resulting in her spending seven days in jail. In February 2020, just as the COVID-19 crisis was taking hold, Ms. T.'s case was continued until April. In April it was continued to early August, then rescheduled again to three weeks later. And that is when I initially observed Ms. T. in the courtroom. At that August 21, 2020 status hearing, Ms. T. essentially represented herself. Her public defender was on leave. What I remember vividly from this hearing was Ms. T.'s reasoned feistiness. She quietly but boldly protested to the judge that she had already served her time (the seven days in jail) for something that she felt hadn't happened. "Why do I need to be here?" she asked the court. "Didn't nothin' occur at my house." The prosecutor reminded the court that there was police video evidence of Ms. T.'s criminal behavior on the night of her arrest--in her home. "Let me see that video," Ms. T. retorted. "They ain't nothin' that video will show except that I'm innocent." State Court Judge Charles Auslander explained to Ms. T. that her September 2019 misdemeanor charge was still pending, that her case wasn't over yet. The judge also explained, at the prosecutor's request, that Ms. T. had agreed, way back in September, 2019, to seek mental health treatment after she bonded out of jail. "I don't need to see anyone about my health," she responded to the court. "I'm fine." After the August 2020 hearing, I drove out to Ms. T.'s doublewide to meet her and to tell her how much I admired her willingness and courage to argue her case. When I saw her last summer, she'd been living peaceably for almost one year since the misdemeanor charges had landed her in jail for a week. Now, on this past Wednesday, January 20, 2021 (at almost the exact same time Joe Biden was being sworn in as President of the United States), Sallie Mae T. was again standing at the podium the State Court courtroom, answering the questions from her lawyer, the prosecutor and judge. "How have you been getting along?" asked the judge. "I've been doing well," she answered. "Your honor, I would like to point out that Ms. T. was a victim of simple battery in a May, 2020 case," the prosecutor interjected, maybe to show that "trouble" followed Ms. T. "And she is not getting any mental health treatment as ordered by the magistrate judge." Replied Ms. T.: "I don't know why I need to go to Advantage (Behavioral Health) in the first place." The judge reminded Ms. T. that at her August 2020 hearing she had agreed to allow one of the sheriff's deputies drive her from the courthouse to Advantage so she could undergo the court-ordered evaluation. "I did do the evaluation back then, but I have concerns (about Advantage)," Ms. T. explained. "I don't want to talk to you about my concerns," she added, then continued, "They have too many staffing changes. I didn't want to go back because what was the reason to go back? I want to get this over with, judge. I want to look at the video. The incident that occurred did not ever occur." The prosecutor again interjected, saying that Ms. T.'s "own health and the safety of the community" are at risk if Ms. T. doesn't get mental health treatment. The feisty Ms. T. got in the last word. "This whole situation is not helping me and is not improving me. Let's look at the video! That should be it." Ms. T.'s appointed attorney concluded the hearing by telling the court that the case "didn't make a ton of sense." Continuing the case once again, the judge did agree to lift the bond condition that she seek mandatory mental health treatment, but told Ms. T. that he still hoped Ms. T. would "voluntarily" get the help he felt she needed and to find someone "safe" to talk with. "You're very important to us," the judge concluded, "and your health is very important to us." And, in an understatement he added, "I understand you want to resolve the case." The road is wide heading into Misdemeanorland. It narrows considerably when you try to get out. Overheard in the courtroom.

  • "I guess so." --James S., appearing remotely in front of Superior Court Judge Patrick Haggard, responding to the judge's question "Have you had enough time to speak to your attorney?"

  • "I see the defendant has his hand raised and wants to say something." --Superior Court Judge Haggard, during a felony status hearing, recognizing that Shaquavvion A., appearing remotely from the jail Booth, wanted to speak to the judge, defense lawyer and prosecutor, all of whom had been speaking about his case from the courthouse courtroom. Said Mr. A., looking into the jail camera, "I can't hear nothing y'all are saying."

  • "That was more than 30 years ago!" --Teresa F., speaking virtually from the jail to Magistrate Judge Ben Makin at her first appearance bond hearing. Judge Makin had just told her that because she had a previous aggravated assault charge in her criminal history, he was not allowed by law to set a bond in her new aggravated assault case.

Jail roster.

Tonight 336 women and men are confined in the Clarke County jail. 248 of this week's total are African American; 10 Latinx; 1 Asian American. There are 17 women locked away in our jail today. 48 (14%) prisoners have been in the jail for one year or longer. 72-year-old George F. remains in custody (since July, 2020); two 66-year-olds are locked up, along with one 64-year-old; two 61-year-olds; and one 60-year-old. All told, 45 people (13%) 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 88 people into the jail, 61 of whom were BIPOC. The oldest person arrested this past week was 66-years-old; the youngest 17. 44 of those arrested and jailed were charged with misdemeanors and 44 were charged with felonies.

COVID-19.

As of yesterday (1/23/21) morning, the Georgia Department of Corrections is reporting cumulative totals of 1,502 prison staff members testing positive for COVID (up 46 from the previous week), with 1,334 recoveries (up by 64) and 2 deaths. 3,170 prisoners have tested positive (up by 170), with 2,751 recoveries (up by 66) and 88 deaths (up 1). "This marks the 6th straight week that prisoner deaths have risen by 1 and the 4th straight week that the increase in prisoners testing positive has exceeded 100," writes Al Lawler, our friend and courtwatcher from Jubilee Partners in Comer, GA.

John Cole Vodicka is an activist, community organizer and writer. Mostly retired, John 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.


442 views0 comments