Bearing Witness: Say names to fight erasure

I thought about all those people whose suffering had been erased, and I thought, “Why can’t they speak? Why can’t I undo some of that erasure?”

–Jesmyn Ward

By John Cole Vodicka

Jesmyn Ward is, in my estimation, one of the best writers on the planet. I encourage folks to read anything and everything she’s written. Two of her books are listed in our the recommended reading section at the end: the novel “Sing, Unburied, Sing” and the memoir “Men We Reaped.” In addition, Ms. Ward’s breakthrough novel, “Salvage the Bones,” and the essay collection she edited, “The Fire This Time” are essential reading. Ms. Ward grew up along the Gulf Coast of Mississippi in DeLisle, and teaches creative writing at Tulane University in New Orleans.

“I commit to telling the truth about the place I live in, and about the kind of people who are living in my community,” Jesmyn Ward said after winning the National Book Award for “Sing, Unburied, Sing.” She is a mighty fine storyteller.

As I put together this issue, the Jesmyn Ward quote above has stayed in my head, especially while I assembled the names of the men and women who – in the course of this past year – have been mentioned on the pages of this newsletter. I was also keenly aware of what Ms. Ward wrote about her African American community in “Men We Reaped”: 

“We are never free from the feeling that we have failed. We are never free from self-loathing. We are never free from the feeling that something is wrong with us, not with the world that made this mess.”

As I sit in courtrooms and talk with people caught up in the New Jim Crow, I have to remind myself that the men and women I encounter – in jail, in shackles, captured and heading off to prison, or placed on probation and house arrest with ankle monitors, scram devices and fines and fees they’re often unable to pay – should not be forgotten, their voices never silenced.

We who “made this mess” must acknowledge what we’ve reaped. We must make every effort to “undo” what we can.

So, please remember these names, names of people in our midst who are worth something.

Justin C. has been locked up in the Clarke County jail since mid-January when he was arrested for violating the terms of his probation. I first “met” Mr. C. in State Court, when he appeared in chains and shackles, held on misdemeanor trespassing and simple battery charges. He was sitting on the back bench in the courtroom, four or five rows behind where I was seated. “Anyone here named Clay? You know who you are!” Mr. C. shouted out to no one in particular. For the next several minutes, he continued to mumble incoherently, loudly at times. Sheriff’s deputies attempted to quiet him. Later, Mr. C. was released by the judge on a no-cash bond. That was on a Friday afternoon. Two days later, on Sunday morning, Mr. C. was rearrested on new charges of trespassing and felony battery. Since then, the 32-year-old African American has been held in jail without bond. He’s had three or four court appearances in both State and Superior Court. On April 8, Superior Court Judge Patrick Haggard ordered that Mr. C. be transported to the Augusta State Hospital for an evaluation as to his competency to “stand trial.” This means he’ll be at the Augusta facility for weeks, maybe longer, after which he’ll either return to our jail “competent” to have his criminal cases resolved, or he’ll be deemed incompetent. If the latter happens, Mr. C. will remain confined in Augusta while he is “treated” in an ongoing effort to restore him to sanity.

When I last saw Mr. C. in court, his hands and feet bound with cuffs and chains, he stood facing the judge to learn his fate. He didn’t say a word to anyone. Instead, he carefully looked around the courtroom, studying the walls that displayed portraits of dead white men, then to the table on his left where three white probation officers sat, to his right where two white prosecutors were sitting, and finally, at Judge Haggard. Holding his head high, Justin C. turned as best he could without tripping over the ankle cuffs, and walked gingerly back to take his seat in a courtroom pew.

George F. just turned 73 years old, in jail. As a matter of fact, the elder African American spent the majority of his 72nd year in the Clarke County Jail. He, like Justin C., suffers from mental disabilities that make it very difficult for him to navigate his way through later life. Most of what Mr. F. has been accused of are fairly petty crimes. He trespasses. His anger gets the better of him and he frightens people. He has a hard time understanding just where he’s been told he cannot go without being arrested. At one hearing last year, the State Court judge actually drew a map that highlighted a multi-block area of Athens where Mr. F. could not enter. The judge called it an “exclusion zone.” After months in jail, Mr. F. was actually released from custody not long ago, on March 1, and ordered to reside in a small nursing care facility in Hull. He lasted there just a few weeks. On the night of March 21, while watching TV at the nursing home, he asked a supervisor if he could “get a snack.” When refused, Mr. F. allegedly threatened the care facility’s staff. He is back in jail.

Sally Mae T. was locked up on February 24. Ms. T. is 65 years old. I met Ms. T. last August, when she appeared in State Court to determine the status of a then nearly year-old misdemeanor case. What I remembered vividly from that August 21 hearing was what I wrote at the time: “Ms. T.’s reasoned feisty-ness.” She boldly protested her innocence to the judge, saying “Didn’t nothin’ happen at my house.” The State Court seemed determined to have Ms. T. evaluated and treated for a mental health disorder. Ms. T. resisted. “I don’t need to see anyone about my health,” she told the court. “I’m fine.” And finally, “Why do I need to be here?” I visited Sally Mae T. on several occasions, once at her double-wide trailer home and several times outside the courthouse after her status hearings. 

Until February 24, Ms. T. had been living peaceably for more than a year since the September 2019 misdemeanor charge had landed her in jail. But then on February 24, according to the police report, Sally Mae T. got on a transit bus and, for reasons yet unknown, argued with the driver, causing the driver to lose control and crash the bus into another vehicle. Another misdemeanor battery arrest landed Ms. T. back in the jail. She has been there ever since, unable to post a $1,000 good security (cash) bond. The bus driver appeared remotely at one of Ms. T.’s recent hearings, telling the court Ms. T. “really needs some help.”

Shamon P. was homeless before he was arrested on February 21. He was jailed for trespassing at the downtown Athens Waffle House, a diner from which he had recently been barred. In fact, since late January this year, Mr. P. had been barred from McDonald’s, a Circle K food store, and Athens Piedmont Regional Hospital. He’d also been jailed on February 2 after allegedly trespassing a second time at the McDonald’s. Shamon P. is a 20-year-old African American. After being jailed on the Waffle House trespassing charge on February 21, the magistrate judge set bond at $1,000 good security (cash). A week later, his public defender asked that his bond be converted to Unconditional Judicial Release (no cash), which it was. Unfortunately for Mr. P., another jurisdiction in the Atlanta area had a “hold” for him and, as far as I know, he is now in jail in that county. Eventually Shannon P. will have to answer to the four misdemeanor trespassing charges he has pending in ACC. In all likelihood the resolution to the cases here will mean months of probation, a mental health evaluation and placement in a treatment program. He’ll be prescribed medications that may or may not help, be fitted with an ankle monitor to let the authorities know where he is at all times, perhaps assessed fines and fees he’ll struggle to pay. As I wrote several months ago, “All simply because he’s hungry, cold, disoriented and alone.”

You’ll no doubt remember Isaac B. I told his story not long ago and illustrated it with a photograph I took of the young, 22-year-old African American when he appeared in Superior Court Judge Patrick Haggard’s courtroom. He’d been arrested on a felony bench warrant. In the photograph, Mr. B. is sitting on a wooden bench, his body bent forward with his head almost touching his knees. He’s shackled with his ankles and hands cuffed. He appeared to me to be heavily medicated. In March 2020, Mr. B. had been charged with entering an automobile in a used car dealership’s parking lot and driving it a short distance before crashing. He didn’t have a driver’s license and he was also charged with “failure to maintain lane” as he wrecked the car. Mr. B. had been released on these charges but then failed to appear for a scheduled hearing, resulting in his being jailed again. Now, at this most recent March 17 court appearance, Judge Haggard declined to set bond, meaning that Mr. B. would remain in jail. Judge Haggard said the defendant was a danger to our community. To be sure, Mr. B. has had his run-ins with the law, dating back to the summer of 2019. He’s allegedly shoplifted from Belk and several Family Dollar stores. He tried to take an iPhone attached to a display counter at T-Mobile. He was arrested one morning because he was loitering in the Dunkin’ Donuts parking lot. “I had to pee!” Mr. B. screamed at the police officers as he was being taken to jail. After his arrest at the car dealership in March of last year, Mr. B. was taken to the hospital, but later walked out of the emergency room with the IV still attached to his arm. When police found him walking along the Loop, 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 read. Issac B. has been in our jail since January 21. He is still being held without bond. As I wrote on March 21, “We’re reducing (Mr. B.) to a place where he is unacceptable in our midst.” Or, to paraphrase what Jesmyn Ward has written: “(Mr. B.) is never free from the feeling that something is wrong with (him).”

Two weeks ago I wrote about the saga of 41-year-old Daniel W., a white man confined in our jail. Mr. W. is physically disabled and, when he’s not behind bars, homeless. Since the first of this year Mr. W. has had nearly two dozen encounters with local law enforcement. He’s been barred from a dozen establishments (most of them along Prince Avenue) and when he returns to these places, he’s often arrested for criminal trespassing. I first observed Mr. Wilson during an April 2 remote hearing in State Court held to determine Mr. W.’s bond status after he’d been arrested at Sam’s Food Mart on March 22. His public defender attempted to have Mr. W.’s bond converted to “no cash” so he wouldn’t have to spend more time in jail. The prosecutor pointed to Mr. W.’s “staggering number of incidents” that occurred in just a short period of time. Nonetheless, Judge Charles Auslander did grant a UJR bond, but at the same time essentially barred Mr. W. from “all of Prince Avenue.” Judge Auslander also ordered Mr. W. to return to court on April 14 for a status hearing. But on April 6, four days after his release from jail, police were called to Athens Piedmont Regional Hospital after Mr. W., in his wheelchair, entered the waiting area and refused to leave. When police arrived Mr. W. asked them for a ride. When the officers refused his request, Mr. W. told them he wasn’t leaving the hospital. At that point, they did oblige him with a ride – to the Clarke County Jail, where he remains. We, the taxpayers, are spending about $40 for every day he’s there.

And, please, let us not forget the name Freddie C. He, too, is in our jail, where he’s occupied a cell since November 16, 2020. Mr. C. is 61 years old, and this Black man, who suffers from mental illness and dementia, is waiting in jail to be moved to the Augusta State Hospital. In January, a State shrink determined that Mr. C. is not competent to stand trial so State Court Judge Ethelyn Simpson, during a bench trial on March 5 that lasted all of four transcribed pages, ordered that Mr. C. “undergo inpatient, psychiatric, psychological, and psychoeducational treatment … for the purposes of competency restoration.” This could very well mean that Freddie C. – who is otherwise homeless and who sometimes pees in public, panhandles, gets picked off for trespassing and loitering when cops are looking for something to do – might spend the remainder of his life in custody. Mr. C.’s one question to Judge Simpson at the end of his bench trial – while he stood remotely in front of a laptop at the jail – was, “When do I get out?”

“Unfortunately,” the judge answered, “I can’t answer that question for you.” 

Donald Dewayne C. has been rendered voiceless and erased. His case file folders that I examined several weeks ago in the Clerk of Court’s office, wrapped tight once more with a rubber band, will probably never be looked at again. Mr. C. spent much of the last decade of his life battling the demons in his head and the machinations of the ACC criminal legal system as it sought to have him declared incompetent and incapable of understanding the 2004 felony battery charge and a slew of mostly traffic-related misdemeanor offenses pending against him. This past December 1, Donald C. died while confined at one of the Georgia prison system’s for-profit nursing homes near Milledgeville. He spent much of 2020 either in our jail, the Augusta State hospital, or, in the end, the carceral nursing facility. At the State Court virtual hearing in May 2020 – his last appearance in front of an ACC judge – Mr. C. attempted to speak after the judge told him he was headed to the nursing home. Sitting in his wheelchair in the jail Booth, he waved his arms at the camera. The TV monitor in the courtroom went dark. Donald C. was 85. His death certificate says he died of “natural causes.”

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.