Bearing Witness: The isolation of Issac B.

“As long as we retain the idea of a ‘criminal’ – along with entrenched, racialized ideas about who is a criminal and what they look like – alternatives will always involve the idea of putting people Somewhere Else.  As long as we are creating the category of a human being who is lesser, who is marked as unfit for regular society, there will always be a push to siphon off those individuals–to ensure they are not with the rest of us, on our streets, in our homes, in our societies.”  

–Maya Schenwar & Victoria Law, Prison By Any Other Name

By John Cole Vodicka

Look at this photograph. It was taken this past Wednesday in Superior Court Judge Patrick Haggard’s courtroom. The person you are looking at is Isaac B. He’s just been denied a probation bond, meaning he’ll stay in jail for weeks, if not months more. He’s already been locked up for two months, arrested on January 21, 2021. Isaac B. is 21 years-old. Here’s what I’ve found out about young Mr. B. since his court appearance on Wednesday:

Isaac B., when not in jail, is unmoored. In the last couple of years, he’s bounced around from the street, to jail, to courtrooms, then back to the street, jail and the courthouse. (On most of the police reports I’ve looked at involving Mr. B., he lists his address as the Salvation Army shelter on Hawthorne Avenue.) In the midst of all this, Mr. B.’s mental health has deteriorated, which seemed evident during his court appearance on Wednesday.

While waiting for his case to be called, Mr. B. sat directly across the aisle from me in Judge Haggard’s courtroom. For the better part of an hour, he appeared just as he does in the attached photograph, bent forward and motionless. He appeared to be heavily medicated. When Judge Haggard called his name though, Mr. B. stood up and waddled toward the defense table, hands and ankles cuffed, wrapped in a belly chain. His orange pants had slipped below his buttocks; no one made an attempt to pull them up. Sitting the defense table next to his lawyer, his eyes were cast downward.

Mr. B. was arrested on a bench warrant after failing to appear at a previously set felony hearing. In March 2020 (a year ago), he’d been charged with two felony charges after he entered an auto parked in the used car lot of a Chevrolet dealership and driving away with the vehicle. Almost immediately upon entering the roadway, Mr. B. wrecked the car. This brought the police and two additional misdemeanor charges, failure to maintain lane and driving without a license. He’d been released from jail last year on these charges, but when he failed to appear for a status hearing a warrant was issued and he was rearrested in January 2021. 

These auto theft-related charges followed misdemeanor offenses allegedly committed by Mr. B., starting in August 2019, when he was 19 years old. On August 12 that year, Isaac B. was arrested for shoplifting at a Family Dollar. Among the items the store claimed he stole were a Jimmy Dean Bacon, Egg and Cheese Bowl, a Jimmy Dean Griddle Sandwich, a Jimmy Dean Pancake Sausage, a package of Tyson Chicken Nuggets, two cans of Red Bull, a Chef Boyardee Microwavable Pasta, a Sunkist Orange Soda, a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, a Carmex Lip Balm and a Tahitian Treat Soda. For good measure, police allege he also walked away with a Soundlogic Speaker and a pair of Breached Warrior Sport Earbuds. A backpack that Mr. B.’s companion was carrying contained a six-pack of beer, allegedly taken from a CVS next door to the Family Dollar. While police were arresting Mr. B., they tacked on two more misdemeanor charges: obstruction and disorderly conduct.
Two months later on October 14, 2019, Mr. B. was arrested after a Belk store manager chased him around the Mall and accused him of stealing clothing and fragrance items from the store. Mr. B. was charged with misdemeanor shoplifting and barred from the department store for two years.

Then, in March 2, 2020, Mr. B. was arrested at another Family Dollar store and this time charged with taking a backpack and filling it with a bag of potato chips, a small carton of chocolate milk, one pack of donuts and five bottles of cologne. The items totaled $25.00. Another misdemeanor. 

The next day, March 3, 2020, Mr. B. allegedly went into the T-Mobile store on Alps Road and took a cellphone from the display counter. One more misdemeanor offense to add to his rap sheet. 

Three days later, on March 6, 2020 at five in the morning, the used Chevrolet was taken off the lot and damaged, resulting in two more misdemeanor charges, as well as the two felony charges. After this arrest, Isaac B., injured in the car crash, was taken to the Piedmont Regional Hospital. Around 11 a.m. that day, he walked out of the hospital emergency room in his hospital gown, an IV still attached to his arm. Police found him walking along the Loop, climbing fences to avoid capture. He was apprehended and returned to the hospital because police recognized Mr. B. seemed to be having a mental health episode. “He was bobbing his head, not talking to us … he was nonsensical,” the police report reads.

Out on bond, Isaac B. was off the police department’s radar for nearly five months until, as a September 19, 2020 police report states, an officer “noticed a younger Black male subject walking through the parking lot of Dunkin’ Donuts at Prince Avenue,” at 5 in the morning. “Due to the business being closed, I decided to sit back and observe this subject to see what was going on.” The report continues: “I initiated my florescent emergency lights and got out with the male subject. I first asked if everything was okay, and the male subject looked at me and continued walking the opposite direction. I then yelled more verbal commands for him to come talk to me and to stop walking way, which he did not comply to.

“At Hill Street and Milledge I got of my vehicle and approached the male one more time, giving him commands to stop and talk to me, again, he did not comply.” In the meantime, a second police officer arrives on the scene. ” … the male finally stopped walking and placed his hands in the air. He was immediately detained … I asked him why he was at Dunkin’ Donuts and he stated he was never there. I told him I saw him there and his reply was ‘No you did not.’

“Myself and (the other police officer) gave B. ample opportunity to explain why he was walking around the backside of a closed business. (Mr. B.) kept silent and when he did speak, he denied being at the location. B. was then placed into custody (under arrest) for loitering/prowling and escorted to the patrol vehicle. B. then yelled he was there because he was peeing. B. was then taken to the county jail.”

On this past Wednesday, March 17, 2021, the state opposed the lifting of Mr. B.’s bench warrant, citing his previous failure to appear in court and the new misdemeanor offenses he’d accumulated since March 2020. Judge Haggard agreed, refusing to lift the bench warrant and returning Isacc B. to a jail cell. 

Mr. B. attempted to speak to the judge but his lawyer discouraged him from doing so. He returned to the courtroom gallery, his shackles loudly banging against the wooden pew as he sat down. He leaned forward, his head on his knees, motionless again. Fetal-like. A few minutes later deputies escorted him out to the elevator and the courthouse basement’s holding cell.

Isaac B. is another young person of color who is being – as Mary Schenwar & Victoria Law are quoted above – “siphoned off.” We’re reducing him to a place where he is unacceptable in our midst, ensuring that “he’ll never be with the rest of us – on our streets, in our homes, in our societies.”

Frustrated as Mr. B. was led from the courtroom last Wednesday, I scribbled in my notebook: “Why?” Why do we insist on widening the net of our prison industrial complex instead of working to dismantle the structures of oppression that feed the criminal legal system. Why can’t we instead demand that the safety nets be widened in our community? 

Returning home on Wednesday afternoon, and after receiving the police reports Mr. B. had accumulated over the past two years, I thought to google the corporate businesses whose stores Mr. B. had allegedly stolen from. The CEO of CVS, Larry Merlo, received $36.5 million in compensation last year. Howard Levine, CEO of Family Dollar, received $1.3 million in 2020. Tim Belk’s compensation package shrunk by 4% last year; still, the Belk CEO earned $3.96 million. T-Mobile’s CEO, G. Michael Sievert, bagged $16.4 million. And Mary Baria, CEO of General Motors/Chevrolet, was payed out $21.6 million. Safety nets.
‘Nuff said. For now, anyway.

John 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.