Is jail the only answer for mentally ill man?

“The prison therefore functions ideologically as an abstract site into which undesirables are deposited, relieving us of the responsibility of thinking about the real issues afflicting those communities from which prisoners are drawn in such disproportionate numbers. This is the ideological work that the prison performs—it relieves us of the responsibility of seriously engaging with the problems of our society, especially those produced by racism and, increasingly, global capitalism.”  

— Angela Y. Davis

By John Cole Vodicka

Our physical presence in the courthouse was minimal this past week. I did manage to attend – in Magistrate Court on Monday afternoon – a special bond hearing for one of the 330 men and women locked up in our jail. His name is Jennings L. and, earlier this month, he’d been deposited in the Athens-Clarke County criminal legal system. Here, briefly, is his story as I’ve come to know it. 

Jennings L. being led from the courtroom by a deputy sheriff to be brought to the courthouse basement’s holding cell and then transported to the jail.

I was sitting in the Magistrate courtroom Monday a week ago waiting on a special bond hearing for Jennings L. (His last name is a keeper, too, but I want to protect Mr. L.’s anonymity.) It was the fourth time in less than two weeks that I’d been in Magistrate Court to observe whether or not a judge would grant Mr. L. a bond. It seemed that the Magistrate Court was wanting to release the 56-year-old defendant from custody pending the resolution of his case, but that the two judges who’d been involved up to now were hesitant to put somebody like Mr. L. back on the street without some sort of pretrial plan. 

Jennings L. clearly suffers from the malady that is schizophrenia. Since his first bond hearing on May 14 – and the three more that followed – it was clear to me that neither Judges Donarell Green or Benjamin Makin were unconcerned or uncaring that a crazy person was occupying a jail cell in Clarke County. But then, crazy is as crazy does.

Mr. L. was arrested on May 13 and charged with misdemeanor “harassing communications” and felony “terroristic threats.” The next morning, at the regularly-scheduled bond hearings held daily in Magistrate Court, Mr. L. appeared remotely from the jail in front of Judge Green. As usual, I was sitting in the courtroom when Mr. L. was led into the jail booth for his hearing. 

Judge Green explained to Mr. L. what landed him in jail: Over the course of one month, he’d allegedly left as many as 50 voice and text messages – 15 to 20 each week – on ACC Police Chief Cleveland Spruill’s cell phone, messages that the top cop clearly got annoyed with, even felt threatened. “One of the messages you are accused of sending to Chief Spruill,” Judge Green informed Mr. L., “was that you’ll ‘kick his butt and kill him.’”
“You have treated me like crap,” Mr. L. shot back at the judge. “One day you’ll understand.”

At that point Judge Green decided that it was wise not to grant bond to Jennings L. without having the defendant appear in person in Magistrate Court. He wanted to give Mr. L. the opportunity to have a lawyer at his side. So instead of setting a bond, or denying one outright, the judge set a special hearing for the following Monday afternoon. It meant that Mr. L.’s one night in jail would increase to three more.

On Monday afternoon, May 17, Magistrate Judge Benjamin Makin presided at Mr. L.’s special bond hearing. Mr. L. arrived at the courthouse from the jail wearing a gray CLARKE COUNTY SHERIFF-stamped jumpsuit, his hands and ankles cuffed and attached to a chain that wrapped around his midsection. In the courtroom was Paige Otwell, the assistant district attorney, and public defender Anette Wright. Also present was Kristen Daniel, director of the Treatment & Accountability Court (TAC) program, and ACC police detective Robie Cochran. The hearing revealed several things about Mr. L.

  • He was homeless and sleeping on the front steps of the First Baptist Church in downtown Athens. “He has no place to go if he bonds out,” explained ADA Otwell.
  • He has family in Danielsville (Madison County), Georgia and in South Carolina.
  • He might be receiving SSI disability benefits.
  • He is mentally unstable.
  • He makes “incoherent” threats. Detective Cochran said that Mr. L. recently was seen leaving handwritten notes on the windshields of federal agents’ cars parked at the downtown U.S. Courthouse.
  • He wants to go to Disneyland.
  • He has driving-related offenses in his “criminal” history dating back to 1985, but only one such offense in Athens-Clarke County, Georgia.
  • He has some drug charges – no convictions – dating back 10 years.
  • He has no history of violence.

At the special hearing on May 17, Judge Makin told everyone that he believed Jennings L. needed “some level of supervision” if he released him from jail.  The judge asked TAC director Daniel to meet with Mr. L. at the jail.

“I want to be confident that Mr. L. will get off on the right foot once he leaves the jail,” Judge Makin said.
“Yes sir yes sir yes sir yes sir,” Mr. L. replied.

Judge Makin postponed making a decision on bond for two more days, rescheduling the hearing for Wednesday afternoon, May 19.

On Wednesday, with the same cast of characters present in the Magistrate courtroom, the special bond hearing resumed. Judge Makin was informed that none of Mr. L.’s Madison County family wanted anything to do with him anymore. Public Defender Anette Wright said that Mr. L. had some contact information for his family in South Carolina but that information was “in his wallet that is now being stored in the property room at the jail.”

Lawyer Wright asked the judge to allow her client the chance to access the contact info from the billfold so that she could determine if anyone in South Carolina might be able to accommodate Mr. L. while he is out on bond. She and ADA Paige Otwell also thought that if Mr. L. did indeed have SSI money available to him, he might qualify to be released to a certain Athens-based personal care facility. “Our office uses it a lot,” Ms. Otwell told Judge Makin. 

As Wednesday’s hearing concluded, Judge Makin continued to express a reluctance to allow Mr. L. to be released from jail without a more specific plan in place. “Mr. L. is a risk to his own and to the community’s safety,” he reasoned for the record. The special hearing was continued for yet one more time, Monday afternoon, May 24. Mr. L. was returned to jail. “On Monday, I will have to fish or cut bait,” Judge Makin told those of us in the courtroom. “He’s not a flight risk and he’s not a violent person,” the judge reminded us (and himself) (and for the record). “At some point he is entitled to a bond.”

I was present again at the third special bond hearing on May 24. In addition to Judge Makin, ADA Otwell, PD Wright, TAC director Daniel and a shackled Jennings L. were in the courtroom. I noticed Mr. L. had exchanged his gray uniform and was now dressed in the orange version of the jail jumpsuit. 

Before the hearing began, Mr. L. sat just a few feet away from me, situated between me and Ms. Wright. Mr. L. occasionally spoke to his lawyer, but mostly stared straight ahead. At one point it seemed to me like he’d become laser-focused on the Georgia state seal that hangs on the wall behind the judge’s bench. This same seal is in every ACC courtroom, sandwiched between the U.S. and Georgia flags. It reads: “Wisdom. Justice. Moderation.” While he pondered the great seal and shook his head back and forth, Mr. L. began talking to himself. He seemed to be commenting on the people who run our government. I heard him mention “Disneyland.” He said, “They framed me for sayin’ somethin’ about Spruill.” And then, “Um um um um um um.”

Recognizing me from his last two special bond hearings, and the notepad in my hand, Mr. L. slipped the COVID mask below his mouth. He said: “You gonna write something about this? If you do, don’t use my nickname.”
Judge Makin entered the courtroom for this, the fourth bond hearing for Jennings L. We found out that he didn’t receive any SSI disability support and has no source of money from his family and owned no property. His mental health had not “stabilized” while he’d been in locked up (no surprise here). The Treatment & Accountability Court would be reluctant to accept him because “he’d be difficult to manage.” Even if TAC would take him in, Mr. L. said he wouldn’t participate. If released from jail, Mr. L. planned to continue to sleep outside on the Baptist church’s steps.

“Our efforts haven’t borne much fruit at this time,” Judge Makin announced. “But he’s been in custody for 11 days. He has no violent history; the ‘threats’ he’s charged with did not cause anyone any physical harm. I have to give Mr. L. a bond.” And with that, the judge set an Unsecured Judicial Release (UJR-no cash) bond and ordered that Mr. L. be released at 10 a.m. the following day. 

But the bond came with a variety of conditions, many of which I thought Mr. L. would never be able to adhere to. While out on bond he was to live only at a place approved by his pretrial probation officer; have no contact with Chief of Police Cleveland Spruill and no contact with the police department unless it was an emergency; stay away from drugs and alcohol; be drug tested once a week at the probation office; report to Advantage Behavioral Health Services within 48 hours of his release and provide proof to his pretrial probation officer that he did so; that he not violate the law or possess firearms. Upon his release from jail last Wednesday morning, Mr. L. was to be transported by a sheriff’s deputy directly to the probation office.

“Mr. L.,” Judge Makin concluded, “if you don’t do all of the above the probation officer can ask me to issue an arrest warrant and you’ll go back to jail. If you violate the terms of your bond you will be in jail again. Mr. L., just follow the rules and make progress and I won’t ever have to see you again.”

At this point, Jennings L., sitting in the courtroom gallery directly behind his public defender, responded: “Judge, someday I hope I can say the same thing to you.”

As far as I know, Mr. L. was indeed released from jail on this past Wednesday morning. His name does not appear on the jail roster tonight. Let’s hope and pray he is safe, and somehow, sound.

Sunday evening:

  •  325 women and men were confined in the Clarke County jail.
  • 231 of this total were African American.  There were also 15 Latinx and 1 Asian American behind bars.  
  • 36 women were locked away in our jail.
  • 73-year-old George F. remained in custody, along with one 67-year-old, three 65-year-olds, one 62-year-old, and three 60-year-olds. All told, 45 people 50 years old and older were in confinement.
  • There were three 18-year-olds and eleven 17-year-olds in jail. A 15-year old, Marquise M. was incarcerated in the Gainesville, Ga. prison for juveniles, charged as an adult with murder. 
  • Over the last seven days local law enforcement arrested and booked 82 people into the jail, 55 of whom were BIPOC. The oldest person arrested this past week was 66. The youngest was 17.

John Cole Vodicka is a member of Oconee Street UMC and is one of the leaders of the Court Watch program.