Bearing Witness: No compassionate safety net for mentally ill

“We must dissent from the indifference. We must dissent from the apathy. We must dissent from a nation that has buried its head in the sand, waiting in vain for the needs of its poor, its elderly and its sick to disappear and just blow away. We must dissent from a government that has left its young without jobs, education or hope. We must dissent from the poverty of vision and the absence of moral leadership. We must dissent because America can do better, because America has no choice but to do better.”

Thurgood Marshall

By John Cole Vodicka 

Their names are Freddie Collins, Jr. and Daniel Wilson.

Let’s start with Freddie Collins, Jr., a gentleman I’ve written about on a number of previous occasions. (I ask that you please read the document below before you go any further. It is a transcript of Mr. Collins’ recent misdemeanor bench trial. Sadly, it’s a quick read. After looking at the transcript, resume reading below.)

THE COURT: Thank you so much, Mr. Collins. And they’re going to – they’re going to take good care of you, Mr. Collins. Good luck to you.
THE DEFENDANT: Okay. Well, just one question: When do I get out?
THE COURT: Unfortunately, I can’t answer that question for you, Mr. Collins. Okay. All right. Take care, Mr. Collins.

The transcript is all of four double-spaced pages. Four measly pages. The March 5 hearing – a bench trial for Freddie Collins, Jr. – lasted 10 minutes at most. The 61-year-old Mr. Collins appeared in State Court, virtually. He stood in front of a laptop in the Clarke County jail. Judge Ethelyn Simpson, prosecutor Will Fleenor, and public defender David Douds were physically present in the downtown Athens courtroom. At this bench trial’s conclusion, Judge Simpson announced she was agreeing to the stipulated agreement between the State and Mr. Collins’ lawyer. The judge ordered Mr. Collins committed to the mental health unit at the Augusta State Hospital “for the purposes of competency restoration.”

Now one of two things can happen to Freddie Collins. One, after he spends some time at the Augusta hospital he can be “restored” to competency. This will happen if the doctors find a mix of drugs that allows Mr. Collins to gain at least an elementary understanding of the criminal legal proceedings he faces and the difference between right and wrong. Two, and I think the likely outcome, is that Mr. Collins will be declared “incompetent to stand trial,” and, as labeled, will remain incarcerated in what we once called a mental institution. Given Mr. Collins’ age, mental health condition and the possible onset of dementia, this would probably mean a life sentence. It’s a pretty steep price to pay for allegedly committing a slew of misdemeanor offenses.

Like Judge Auslander and Solicitor Fleenor, I am not a doctor or a shrink. But I’m certain that Freddie Collins, Jr. does not need jail (where he’s been housed since last November) or round-the-clock confinement in a mental health facility. I got to know Mr. Collins last summer, before he was locked up on the burglary charge. We had coffee outside of the downtown Chick-fil-A a time or two. We found ourselves on the same city bus, he on is way to a homeless day shelter, me to my comfortable home. I gave him a few dollars every now and then, and once bought him a pair of jeans and long-sleeved T-shirt. I’d see him arranging his cardboard and blankets as he prepared to bed down outside a downtown building, and we’d talk for a few minutes. 

Sure, Mr. Collins was arrested every now and then. He urinated in public spaces. He was accused of public indecency. He panhandled, and police determined it was too aggressive. He loitered and allegedly prowled. He trespassed. Sometimes he went to jail for a few days and was released pending disposition of these misdemeanor cases. He was encouraged to seek mental health treatment. He was barred from a half-dozen downtown establishments. Then, last fall, he was arrested and jailed because he walked into the downstairs common room of an unlocked fraternity house, picked up a computer and sat down on a couch. A fraternity brother spotted him, called the police, and Freddie Collins was charged with trespassing and burglary, though the computer never left the building. He’s been in jail ever since.

 And then, on March 5, Mr. Collins had his “bench trial.” Read it one more time. No witnesses were called. Mr. Collins was not adjudicated guilty of anything. But he’d been “evaluated” while in jail and deemed incapable of going to trial to prove his innocence or offer mitigating evidence that might explain his non-violent criminal behavior. Tonight, Freddie Collins remains in our jail, waiting to be disposed of. He’ll soon be moved to the state hospital in Augusta, a place from where he might never return.
“Okay,” Freddie Collins asked at his bench trial. “Just one question: When do I get out?

Now, let’s spend some time with Daniel Wilson. I first encountered Mr. Wilson this past Thursday afternoon, when he appeared remotely at the weekly State Court jail call. Mr. Wilson is confined to a wheelchair, having been struck by an automobile some time ago. Mr. Wilson had been arrested on the afternoon of March 22, charged with misdemeanor criminal trespass. He’d been in the parking lot at J’s Bottle Shop on Prince Avenue, and had dialed 911 in an attempt to “seek transport.” Unfortunately, Mr. Wilson had previously been barred from J’s and Sam’s convenience store, which share a Prince Avenue address. On March 22, police booked Mr. Wilson with trespassing, and brought him to the Clarke County jail.

While observing his “bond status” hearing on Thursday, it became obvious to me that Mr. Wilson was not only physically disabled but also homeless and mentally ill. He told State Court Judge Charles Auslander that he “took a shower” at the Sparrow’s Nest (located on Prince Avenue) and received his mail there. He also said he got his “insulin and mental health medicines” at a pharmacy across the street from Sparrow’s Nest. It also became clear that Daniel Wilson had worn out his welcome with businesses located on Prince Avenue. Nonetheless, Judge Auslander did convert Mr. Wilson’s bond to an Unsecure Judicial Release (no cash), but ordered the 41-year-old barred “from all of Prince Avenue” except for the day shelter and drug store.

Curious, the next morning I filed an Open Records request to obtain police reports on Mr. Wilson. I asked for reports only from January 1, 2021 to the present, a three-month time frame. Friday afternoon I received the information from the Open Records clerk. There were 22 police reports!

Here, in abbreviated form, are what these reports tell us (quotations are taken from the reports):

January 4, 2021. Police arrived at the Subway on Prince Ave. and learned from the store manager that Daniel Wilson had “rolled into the store” in his wheelchair and “began asking customers to buy him food.” Mr. Wilson wasn’t arrested but he was barred from Subway for one year.

January 19, 2021. At 9 p.m., police responded to a call from the Prince Avenue McDonald’s. They found Mr. Wilson “laying down in a booth” stating “he wasn’t feeling well, and told us to take him to jail.” Instead, police called EMS, who “arrived on the scene and transported him.” The restaurant manager wanted Mr. Wilson barred, which he was.

January 21, 2021. At 4:30 in the afternoon, police found Mr. Wilson at the Alps Road Kroger. He was “asleep in his wheelchair inside the store.” Again, EMS was called and transported Mr. Wilson to St. Mary’s hospital. Kroger barred him for two years. Later that night, at 10:30, Mr. Wilson was discovered by police in the restaurant at Krystal on Prince Avenue. He was unresponsive other than to refuse to leave the building. Police had EMS take him off Krystal’s property. The ambulance dropped him off at St. Mary’s hospital. Krystal management barred Mr. Wilson for two years.

January 22, 2021. St. Mary’s hospital called police at 10:30 p.m. Daniel Wilson had been discharged earlier that evening (after having been admitted the night before) but “was refusing to leave.” “He said he was unable to leave because he could not walk and explained that he’d been hit by a car.” Mr. Wilson had been previously barred by St. Mary’s hospital unless it was a medical emergency. “Officers on the scene spoke with hospital staff in an attempt to identify an alternative means to resolve this problem that wouldn’t necessitate his arrest but were unable to do so.” Mr. Wilson then said he was feeling suicidal. “They (hospital staff) reluctantly accepted him.”

January 24, 2021. At 3 a.m., the police are back at the Prince Avenue Subway. Mr. Wilson has allegedly refused to leave the restaurant. The Subway manager wanted Mr. Wilson barred for two years. Informed by the police that he had already been barred, the police ‘wheeled’ Mr. Wilson “off the property.”

January 26, 2021. Just before 7 p.m. and police arrived at Firehouse Subs on Prince Avenue responding to “a trespassing person in a wheelchair.” Daniel Wilson was immediately identified as the culprit. The store manager said Mr. Wilson was “harassing customers and refusing to leave.” He was escorted off the property. And barred from Firehouse for one year.

January 27, 2021. Just past midnight the police were called to the Alps Road Kroger, where Daniel Wilson was sitting in his wheelchair attempting to gain entry to the grocery store. “Wilson was visibly intoxicated.” Police transported him to St. Mary’s “for an evaluation.” “St. Mary’s staff provided documentation that Wilson was cleared for incarceration.” He was arrested and taken to jail but the nurses on duty “advised that they were unable to accept Wilson.” Clearly irritated, the police stated in their report that “Wilson was then given a courtesy transport to Waffle House in downtown Athens.”

Daniel Wilson’s month January, 2021 comes to a close.

February 2, 2021. A not-so-welcome-back at Subway. At 5 a.m., Mr. Wilson is on the property again. The police are clearly frustrated. “Officers have been out with Wilson the last couple of weeks multiple times (daily) in reference to him returning to locations he is barred from.” The police report indicates that from here on, warrants will be sought whenever Mr. Wilson is trespassing, “with hope that there will be a solution.” One hour later, police are called to McDonald’s. The night manager tells them that Daniel Wilson is “rolling through the drive thru line asking customers for a ride.” The manager wants Mr. Wilson barred and is informed that’s already happened. While the police officer was speaking to the night manager at McDonald’s the report states Mr. Wilson was yelling at him “from the Krystal across Prince Avenue.” “I knew Mr. Wilson had been barred from Krystal, too.” The police officer did not arrest Mr. Wilson, choosing instead to “seek a warrant for criminal trespass.”

February 17, 2021. It’s 8 o’clock at night, and police have found Mr. Wilson at Firehouse Subs when responding to a call from Subway next door. “I talked with Wilson and he admitted to being across the street at Subway.” “Wilson was escorted off of Firehouse property and was not taken to jail due to the jail previously refusing him twice.” The police report went on to say that one reason the jail wouldn’t take him was that he had “metal rods coming out of his leg.” Again, the police officers stated they’ll be taking out criminal trespass warrants.

February 19, 2021. At 11 p.m., Daniel Wilson was in his wheelchair in the Kroger parking lot. Police arrived and get him off the property. “Wilson was not taken to jail due to his medical condition and the jail refusing him twice before.”

February 21, 2021. Now it seems Daniel Wilson’s moved a bit north on Prince Avenue and police are called to Sam’s FoodMart at 10 a.m. Mr. Wilson is in the store when police arrived, sitting in his wheelchair “with his feet propped up on a box blocking one of the cash registers of the business.” Mr. Wilson “said that he wanted a ride home.” ”I asked where he wanted a ride to, and he responded ‘Atlanta.’ I explained we were not a taxi service and could not provide rides, especially to Atlanta.” The clerk at Sam’s asked that Mr. Wilson be removed from the store. The clerk told the police officer that Mr. Wilson “had been coming in the store all week taking food.” The clerk did not “want to prosecute for shoplifting saying it was ok with him that Wilson had taken the food since he was hungry, but that he didn’t want him in the store anymore because it was affecting his business.” The police officer wheeled Mr. Wilson off Sam’s property where he left him “at the neighboring business at his request.”
February 22, 2021. Jittery Joe’s on Alps Road asked the police to come to their store. It was 8 p.m., and Mr. Wilson was “heavily intoxicated.” EMS is called and Mr. Wilson is transported to St. Mary’s hospital. He’s also barred from Jittery Joe’s for two years. A little more than three hours later, at 11:50 p.m., police are at the hospital because Daniel Wilson refused to leave. “Wilson stated he could not get up.” The police officer eventually “assisted Wilson off the property to Baxter St.” and indicated he would be “signing a warrant for criminal trespass.”

February 23, 2021. Daniel Wilson is found “lying on the ground” on St. Mary’s hospital property. “Wilson was escorted off the property.”
And now we’re in March 2021.

March 5, 2021. Daniel Wilson was at St. Mary’s again, and refusing to leave. The responding police officer told Mr. Wilson that if he didn’t leave the hospital immediately he would arrest him on “multiple warrants.” Mr. Wilson refuses to move. “Mr. Wilson was escorted out to my vehicle along with all his property minus some cans of beer he had since it could not be taken into the jail. He was placed in handcuffs with is hands in front of him. He was then taken to the Clarke County jail where he was turned over to jail staff without incident.”

March 18, 2021. Mr. Wilson is found sleeping in the driveway at Athens Orthopedic on Cobb St. It’s 4 in the afternoon. “Officers assisted Wilson with getting back into his wheelchair, and locating his shoes. Wilson left the property.” Daniel Wilson was barred from the business for two years. Later that day, at 11 p.m., Mr. Wilson was discovered sleeping in the bathroom at the Prince Avenue Krystal. He was ordered to leave the premises.

March 22, 2021. Police go to J’s Bottle Shop on Prince Ave. There, they found Daniel Wilson talking to EMS personnel, asking that they take him anywhere “other than the hospital.” Mr. Wilson is arrested for criminal trespassing and, after being searched, “transported to county jail by an assisting officer.”

April 1, 2021. Still incarcerated after the March 22 arrest, Daniel Wilson appeared at the State Court jail call. Judge Auslander granted him a no-cash bond but ordered him barred from “all of Prince Avenue,” except for Sparrow’s Nest and Village Drugs. Essentially, Judge Auslander’s order is redundant, because in addition to all of the barrings listed above, he’s also been banished from Popeyes, Dunkin’ Donuts, Moe’s, Piedmont Regional hospital and Peachtree Immediate Care. The judge also ordered Mr. Wilson to return to court in two weeks for a status hearing.

During jail call on Thursday, the state’s solicitor referred to the “staggering number of incidents” Mr. Wilson has been involved in over a short period of time. “We have 10 open cases involving Mr. Wilson,” Will Fleenor told the court, although he admitted that each of the cases involved “very minor charges.{“ Prosecutor Fleenor seemed to think that for Mr. Wilson’s “own safety and well-being” he needed to be admitted into an in-patient treatment facility. Judge

Auslander told the defendant he should think about entering a sober living program.
While I have no doubt that the court’s intentions for Mr. Wilson are sincere, neither the judge or solicitor is a licensed physician or mental health practitioner. During the last three months it seems to me the sheriff’s jail administrators have exhibited the most sense most of the time: they simply refused to cage Daniel Wilson. Someone at the jail recognized that this was a human being, who – homeless and unsheltered, hungry and addicted, physically disabled and diabetic, mentally ill – had absolutely no business occupying a jail cell.

The answer to mental illness does not reside in the criminal legal system. Mandated treatment is not an alternative to incarceration; it is still involuntary confinement. An alternative to jail or prison must not be another institution, another space of confinement. Treatment is more likely to fail when it is synonymous with control.

We can do better for Freddie Collins, Jr. and Daniel Wilson. Alternatives hindered by our lack of creativity means our imaginations remain imprisoned. As Justice Thurgood Marshall encourages us, we must unbury our heads from the sand and “dissent from our poverty of vision.”

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.