Bearing Witness: Jail time is no help

By John Cole Vodicka

Raymond M. suffers with the demons of addiction. He’s 29 years old. Since Dec. 29, he’s been in the Clarke County Jail, arrested yet again and waiting on whether his felony probation will be revoked, returning him to prison. Since 2014 Mr. M. has been locked up a number of times for things like entering automobiles, stealing, receiving stolen property, using or possessing marijuana, meth and opiates. He’s done some prison time in the last six or seven years, been ordered to enter both a state-operated and private residential treatment program, and is currently serving out a number of years on probation. Mostly because of his addiction, the criminal legal system has had a choke-hold on him. Jail to probation to prison to probation to jail again.

Last Tuesday morning, Raymond M. appeared virtually from the jail in Superior Court Judge Lawton Stephens’ courtroom. His attorney, public defender Will McIntosh, was intending to have his client “admit” to his latest probation violations, hoping to have Mr. M. return to probation and not remain in custody. But early in the hearing it became apparent that Judge Stephens had a different idea in mind when he told the lawyer he was likely to send Mr. M. back to prison for two years if he admitted to the violations. When he heard this, Mr. M., who was staring into the jail unit’s laptop camera, appeared uncertain and confused. 

“What do you want to do?” Judge Stephens asked Mr. M. and lawyer McIntosh. “I’m really not quite sure what’s going on,” Mr. M. replied. Mr. McIntosh explained to the court that Mr. M. had been doing fairly well since last spring, maintaining some sobriety and now ready to commit to drug and alcohol treatment. He’d found work doing landscaping, was attending virtual NA and AA meetings, and had been reporting by phone to his probation officer before he was arrested Dec. 29 on the new “entering auto and drug possession” charges.

“Judge, Mr. M. was admitted to the Favor House treatment facility last March,” McIntosh went on. “He was doing well there. But when you are a resident of Favor House you have to work, and that work is at the Wayne Farms poultry plant. When he was working at the chicken plant he hurt his arm and couldn’t work there anymore. So he effectively was fired from the chicken plant,” McIntosh explained. “And when he lost his job at the chicken plant he couldn’t stay at Favor House — they dismissed him from their program.”

McIntosh continued: “And then he was admitted to Hope House, but just before he was to enter that program they called him and told him not to come. They were closing down temporarily because of COVID. His mother had the $475 ready to give to Hope House but they told Mr. M. they didn’t have a spot for him anymore.”

At this point during the hearing Mr. M. raised his hand to be allowed to speak. His lawyer warned him against saying too much. But Mr. M. was determined to be heard. “Judge, please, I’ve been doing good for a year now,” he said. “I still want to get into a treatment program. I don’t want to do drugs any more. Doing jail time is not helping me. Please show some leniency.”

Judge Stephens appeared unmoved. He set the matter for a full probation revocation hearing on March 9. Mr. McIntosh asked the judge to consider granting Mr. M. a probation bond so he could get out of jail pending the hearing. The assistant district attorney opposed a bond, insisting Mr. M. was “gaming the system.” The judge took the bond request “under advisement.” Mr. M.’s mother, sitting in front of me on the first row in the gallery, reached for some tissue to wipe away tears. As of Sunday night, Raymond M. remained in jail.

Leaving the courtroom on Tuesday, I couldn’t shake off what I’d learned about the Favor House residential treatment program and its relationship with the Wayne Farms chicken processing plant. Both Favor House (Nicholson) and Wayne Farms (Pendergrass) are located in Jackson County, and so of course I wondered what, if any, contractual agreement the two entities had with one another.

Maybe one day I’ll look into that relationship. But here’s what I do know:

Favor House costs an individual $800 to gain admittance. There are other fees assessed during one’s stay, and the program says it operates using a “fine-based consequences” system, whatever that might mean. There are transportation fees residents must pay, including a $50 weekly “shuttle fee” that gets residents to and from the chicken processing plant. Since Favor House residents are not allowed to have automobiles, transportation fees are sure to mount up.

The Pendergrass processing plant is one of the largest of Wayne Farms’ 10 sites in the southeast, employing 1,100 people. “Our Secret Ingredient Is You!” beckons anyone who clicks on the company’s employment website. Hourly rates for the “cutters and de-boners” are “up to $12.85.” The Favor House website says its residents must be “physically and mentally able to work which entals (sic) long periods of standing and lifting up to 35-40 pounds.” Wayne Farms tells prospective employees that they should be able to withstand wet and cold temperatures of 45 degrees, raw and live animal odors, and a noise level at a constant 85 decibels. 

“Stay away unless you are completely desperate,” wrote one former Wayne Farm employee on a “comments” website. “It’s a cold, smelly place to work,” said another. “Surprised they have any employees.” “I hate working here.” “All they care about it killing chickens and making money, not their employees.” And, “It’s modern-day slavery. Extremely overworked and underpaid.” 

It’s not surprising that nearly two-thirds of Wayne Farm workers quit within just a few years. Which means it’s also not surprising that companies like Wayne Farm increasingly rely on a labor pool coming from residential treatment programs, probationers, parolees and other marginalized people who face serious repercussions if they aren’t working somewhere to pay off fines and fees court costs sanctioned by the criminal legal system.

Raymond M. is a struggling young man who longs for sobriety and is seeking a way out of the hell that is addiction. Instead, he flunked out of the chicken plant which got him booted from a treatment program and is back in jail, maybe facing two more years in a prison cell.

Tyrone H. was arrested in September 2020. He was out on bond at that time and was jailed after allegedly violating the conditions of a $5,000 good security bond. On Friday, Mr. H. appeared in front of Superior Court Judge Lisa Lott to argue that his original bond be reinstated and he be released from jail — now five months after his arrest.

Jessica Benjamin, from the public defender’s office, told the court that her client was 62 years old, and suffered from a multitude of medical problems. Included are diabetes, COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), congestive heart failure, dangerously high blood pressure, high cholesterol, gastrointestinal issues, and more. “He takes 15 different medications, your honor,” Ms. Benjamin told Judge Lott. “I have reviewed Mr. H.’s medical records which number 840 pages. My client has suffers from at least five conditions that put him in the high-risk category for COVID.”

In her motion to reinstate bond, Mr. H.’s attorney stated that “every unit at the jail is quarantined (and) every medical bed is occupied, with the vast majority being COVID inmates.” 

The assistant district attorney agreed that Mr. H. should have his bond reinstated and be released from jail–as long as he had no contact with the alleged victim in the case. Ms. Benjamin agreed with this condition of bond, but added that she’d talked with the alleged victim who “did not fear Mr. H.” and did not want him to remain in caged given his health and the COVID outbreak in the jail.

Judge Lott reinstated the bond, because, she told Mr. H. “things have changed where you currently reside.” After nearly 20 weeks in jail during a pandemic, Mr. H. was released from confinement.

Overheard in the courtroom.

  • “Come see me.” —Kameron M., speaking from the jail to Magistrate Judge Donarell Green at his first appearance bond hearing last Monday morning. A few minutes earlier, Judge Green had recognized the 22-year-old Mr. M. as one of the young boys he’d coached football when Mr. M. was just 8 or 9 years old. The judge was clearly taken aback. “Kam’s face looked just the same,” Judge Green told me later, while reflecting on what might have happened in the 14 years between Mr. M.’s peewee football days and his incarceration, now charged with a serious felony.

    “Look at me, Kam. Look up at me,” Judge Green told Mr. M. earlier at the bond hearing’s outset. “I’m here to help. I know you can get through this. What can I do to help?” Kameron M. looked into the camera from the Booth and answered his former coach, the judge: “Come visit me. I want to see you.” 

    Judge Green wanted to honor Mr. M.’s request but believes he is ethically prohibited from visiting a defendant in our jail. So instead, he contacted Mr. M.’s family to let them know the outcome of the bond hearing, (State law prohibited Judge Green from setting a bond; Mr. M. remains in jail tonight.) The judge also got in touch with a friend who had coached young Kam and encouraged the friend to make contact with their former player.
  • “I’m broke, your honor. I got no money.” —Israel R., after learning that he was given a total $4,000 good security (cash) bond on felony drug-related charges. Mr. R. told the Magistrate Judge that he had no memory of being arrested or charged with crimes. “I woke up in the hospital, Judge. I overdosed.”
  • “Judge, he’s gone to vomitin’.” —a deputy sheriff telling Magistrate Judge Donarell Green that one of the prisoners wouldn’t be able to with his bond hearing last Monday morning. Until he became sick, Lamont B. told the judge he didn’t understand the misdemeanor charges against him. Later that evening, Mr. B. posted a $1,000 good security (cash) bond and was released from custody.

John Cole Vodicka is a member of Oconee Street United Methodist Church, an organizer of Athens Area Courtwatch Project and a leader of Oconee Street UMC’s Racial Justice Task Force. He publishes his observations in a weekly column called Bearing Witness.