Bearing Witness: 85 years old, yet in jail

This is Donald D. Carnes, at the Clarke County Jail, he as he hears that he will remain in the custody of the County of Clarke, State of Georgia. It turned out to be for the rest of his life.

By John Cole Vodicka

Donald Dewayne Carnes died this past December in a prison nursing home in Milledgeville. He was sent there from the Clarke County Jail in July 2020. He was 85 years old.

Since at least 2004, Mr. Carnes had been in and out of ACC courtrooms and our jail, subjected to in- and out-patient treatment mental health facilities, and evaluated for competency at the state hospital in Augusta. Throughout, almost all of what brought Mr. Carnes into the criminal legal system were misdemeanor offenses. Many of his crimes were driving-related – driving with a suspended license, reckless driving, failure to yield or making erratic lane changes, speeding, failure to stop at the scene of an accident, disregarding a traffic control device and eluding police officers. He also had several criminal trespassing charges years ago, and one felony – in 2004 – criminal damage to property second degree. Over the last 15 years, Mr. Carnes has been evaluated for mental competency on at least three occasions, and each time deemed incompetent to stand trial. Because of his mental state, a number of his cases, including the felony, wound up being dead-docketed.I first learned of Donald Carnes in February 2020, when I saw his name and age listed on the ACC sheriff’s jail roster. Finding an 84-year-old in our jail disturbed me. For the next five months, each week in this e-newsletter I would list Mr. Carnes along with others locked up in our jail who were over 60 years old. Mr. Carnes was by far the oldest.

I also began looking into Mr. Carnes’ criminal history to find out why he was in jail (for what turned out to be his last time). I sent several letters to him at the jail, never getting a response. I talked to prosecutors, defense attorneys and a judge about this octogenarian occupying a jail cell at the onset of COVID.

I “met” Mr. Carnes last spring for the first time virtually, with me sitting in the State Court’s courtroom and him sitting in a wheelchair in the jail’s booth. Then, in May of last year, I saw him again on the courtroom’s TV monitor, this after he had spent some time at the Augusta hospital and found (yet again) to be mentally incompetent. With both the prosecution and defense in agreement, Judge Ethelyn Simpson ordered Mr. Carnes to be transported to the state-run Bostick Nursing Home in Milledgeville.

At that hearing, Mr. Carnes stared into the booth’s camera, trying to make sense of what just happened in the courtroom. After Judge Simpson issued her order, I remember Mr. Carnes attempting to speak, waving his hands and shaking his head in his wheelchair, wanting to object to his being sentenced to a carceral nursing home. Yet, no one in the courtroom acknowledged Mr. Carnes’ protestations. He was not allowed to speak. The courtroom TV screen went blank.

Two months later, Mr. Carnes left the Clarke County jail for the Baldwin County nursing facility. I researched the Bostick Nursing Center and found that it had the capacity to hold 280 people, most all of whom were prisoners too feeble to survive in Georgia’s prisons proper. The so-called care facility is operated by a for-profit company that calls itself CorrectLife. Its founder advised prison personnel who participated in Georgia’s executions. I found out that during the onset of COVID in March/April 2020, the facility experienced a serious virus outbreak and several residents died. Google showed that the nursing home had a 1-out-of-5-star rating.

Last September, I met briefly one day with Judge Simpson and asked her if Mr. Carnes was likely to be confined at the care facility for the remainder of his life. “Unfortunately, I think so,” the judge told me.
Donald Dewayne Carnes spent the last 22 weeks of his life at the for-profit Bostick Nursing Center. Because of COVID, he received no visitors during the entire time he was there. Concerned for his health and well-being, I continued to write to him offering words of encouragement, but never heard back. Mr. Carnes died, of natural causes, on December 1, 2020. He’s buried in a church cemetery in Cumming. He leaves behind his wife Nell, who’s 88. On his death certificate it says Donald Carnes worked as a landscape architect. He had a master’s degree.

As of Sunday, 386 women and men are confined in the Clarke County jail. 273 of this total are African American. There are also 12 Latinx and 1 Asian American behind bars.

48 women are locked away in our jail today.

One 73-year-old – George F. – is locked up, along with one 66-year-old; one 65-year-old; three 64-year-olds; two 61-year-olds; and three 60-year-olds. All told, 50 people in confinement (15% of the jail population) are 50 years or older.

There are nine 18-year-olds and four 17-year-olds in jail tonight.

Over the last seven days local law enforcement arrested and booked 104 people into the jail, 69 of whom were BIPOC.

The oldest person arrested and jailed this last week was 59. The youngest were five 18-year-olds.

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.