By John Cole Vodicka
Donald D. is my neighbor. I’m the one though, with a roof over my head. Donald D. is homeless. He will tell you he “sleeps on the concrete.” I sleep in a king-sized bed. Still, Donald and I close our eyes most nights sleeping just one city block apart from one another.
While sitting at home Friday evening I got a text from Mr. D. It read in part: “This is Donald. I need a can opener do u have one. Am laying under a tree. My low back is hurting. Am looking to rent bedroom. Or garage. I get ssi 1st of the month. Need place to sleep and get out of the rain. If it rains. Some where safe.”
I can’t provide a bedroom or garage or even my back yard to Donald D. I’ve offered to help him access a shelter bed here in Athens, but alas, Donald has worn out his welcome at the few shelters that exist in our community. He’s barred from Salvation Army. He’s persona non grata at Bigger Vision. He has a love-hate relationship with the Day Shelter folks. And truth be told, even if he could access a bed at these overnight shelters, he prefers autonomy to bunk-beds. In Donald’s 52-year-old mind, and from years of personal experience, “trust” is a dangerous concept.
When Donald first moved into my neighborhood, I didn’t know who he was. Then, one day two years ago, I noticed that someone had smashed most of the windows on the nearby CVS store. Yellow police tape and plywood replaced the entire length of storefront that ran along Oglethorpe Avenue.
Not long afterwards, while courtwatching, I was observing in Superior Court Judge Patrick Haggard’s courtroom when a case involving someone named Donald D. was called. There he was, my neighbor! Mr. D. rose from his assigned spot in the gallery where he’d been sitting with a half-dozen other Clarke County prisoners. He was dressed in jailhouse orange and cuffed at the wrists and ankles, wrapped up with a belly chain.
Mr. D. shuffled to the table to sit alongside his public defender. The assistant district attorney read the charges against Donald D. “Criminal damage to property-second degree.” A felony warrant indicated that Donald D. had “struck 18 windows in total with 9 of them completely shattered and 9 of them having some damage to them.” Months prior to this hearing, Mr. D. had entered a not guilty plea and his lawyer was now attempting to have him evaluated to determine his competency to stand trial.
I learned later Mr. D. also had a misdemeanor charge – criminal trespassing – pending in State Court. A year after his alleged 2019 engagement with the CVS windows, Mr. D. had been arrested when he became belligerent after being told by a convenience store clerk he could not help himself to a soda and pack of cheese crackers.
Coincidentally, the convenience store is located directly across from the CVS on Oglethorpe Avenue. Because the intersection of Oglethorpe and Hawthorne Avenues are “home” to him, Donald D. has chosen to continue to remain in the vicinity, despite having been barred from two of the four corners. His stoop during the daytime, and campsite most evenings, is on the northwestcorner of Oglethorpe. There’s nice shade but not much privacy. Mr. D. keeps a blow-up mattress and some cardboard stashed behind a nearby liquor store and rolls out his bedding at dusk. I check in on him when I can.
This past Tuesday, Donald D. was again summonsed to Superior Court for a status hearing. It turns out the Court (judge, district attorney and public defender) were still attempting to have Mr. D. evaluated, with an eye toward in-patient mental health treatment. At last Tuesday morning’s brief hearing, Judge Haggard set June 29 as the date when a doctor would be present to testify as to Mr. D.’s competency.
“I’m glad you are staying out of trouble,” Judge Haggard told Mr. D.
“Thank you, your honor,” Mr. D. responded, dressed in cutoff shorts and a green “Just Chillin’” Peanuts sweater. “God bless you.”
Friday afternoon last week Donald D. and I took a walk together. I was out for some exercise, and he was heading up Hawthorne Avenue to visit a “mechanic friend” of his. As he nursed a Sprite along the way, we talked.
“It’s Father’s Day on Sunday,” he said. “It is heavy on my mind.”
“Why’s that?” I asked.
“My daddy was my best friend. He died in 1998.”
“That’s the same year my dad died. Is your mama still alive?”
“Yea. And I’ve got three sisters. I still talk to one of them.”
“How about you, Donald? Are you a dad?”
“Yes. But the FBI took my son when he was an infant, in 1992. That’s why Father’s Day is heavy on my mind.”
“I’m so sorry. How horrible! Are you from Athens, Donald?” I asked him.
“No, I’m from Cohutta.”
“In Whitfield County, near Dalton.”
“How’d you get to Athens?”
“I was in prison for two years down at Rutledge (State Prison, Columbus, Ga.). When I got out, I got a ride and got dropped off here in Athens.”
Donald D. continued talking as we walked past the Salvation Army shelter: “I’m tryin’ to get into a detox program. One that lasts 45 days. At least I’ll have a place to sleep. I was supposed to meet someone at 3:30 today at Advantage (Behavior Health Services), but it’s too hot to make my way to the other side of town.”
“Well, Donald, here’s my street where I turn. Good to see you and to have some time to talk! You be safe and let me know if I can help.”
We shook hands.
“I’ll be alright,” he told me. “I’m doin’ okay. Tell everyone God bless.”
Not long afterward I got the text from Donald asking for help. He needed a can opener. And a safe and dignified place to live.
Nancy G. appeared remotely in Magistrate Court one week ago, on Monday, June 14. She’d been jailed the day before, charged with misdemeanor battery (family violence) and obstruction of a 911 call.
Nancy G. is 54 years old. Like Donald D., she is homeless. Last Monday, Ms. G. told Magistrate Judge Benjamin Makin that she had no money to post a cash bond. Unfortunately, state law now prohibits Judge Makin or any other judge from granting someone a UJR (no cash) bond when family violence is alleged. Our mean-spirited state legislature continues to create ways to limit – and in Ms. G.’s case – eliminate a judge’s ability to grant no-cash bonds.
After learning of Ms. G.’s homelessness and reviewing her “criminal history,” Judge Makin could see that Ms. G.’s charges did not warrant a money bond. But his hands were tied. “I am now required by law to set a cash bond in your case,” he told the defendant. “I’m going to set your bond as low as I possibly can – $10 on each charge.”
“But what if I don’t have $20?” Ms. G. pleaded with him.
“If you’re still in jail tomorrow (Tuesday), I’ll notify the public defender’s office,” Judge Makin told her.
It turned out that the $20 cash bond did not include the fees the sheriff’s office tacks on to each good security bond. “Actually, if my math is correct, you will have to come up with a total of $33 to get out of jail,” Judge Makin told the distraught defendant.
Two days later, on Wednesday afternoon, I checked the Clarke County jail roster and discovered that Nancy G. was still incarcerated. I emailed the public defender’s office that afternoon and was told that their social worker would visit Ms. G. to determine what could be done. Since then, I’ve checked the jail roster every day and, tonight, Monday, June 21—eight full days since her arrest – Nancy G. remains in jail. Her pretrial –pretrial! – liberty has been denied to her only because she owes the court and sheriff $33! (By the way, I’ve been told that the predatory bail bond companies won’t even consider helping someone post bond if the amount totals less than $50.)
Since these latest statutory restrictions have been implemented that prohibit judges from granting no-cash bonds to anybody charged with a family violence-related offense, we have watched as dozens of defendants receive these mandated cash bonds who would otherwise have been released on their own recognizance. Many of these defendants have spent unnecessary days in jail trying to find a way to hustle up even a piddly amount of money to gain their release from confinement.
Nancy G., charged with two misdemeanors and supposedly presumed innocent, and a person who is clearly not a flight risk or a menace to our community, is still in jail. But because she is homeless and poor she will sleep – for a ninth consecutive night – in a cage off Lexington Road.
Monday night, 322 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.
41 women were locked away in our jail.
One 73-year-old – George F. – remained in custody, along with one 67-year-old; two 65-year-olds; and one 63-year-old and one 62-year-old. All told, 51 people 50 years old and older were in confinement.
There were four 18-year-olds and eight 17-year-olds in jail. A 15-year old, Marquise M. was incarcerated in the Gainesville, Ga. kiddie prison, charged as an adult with murder.
Over the last seven days local law enforcement arrested and booked 83 people into the jail, 59 of whom were BIPOC.
The oldest person arrested last week was 61. The youngest were two 17-year-olds.
John Cole Vodicka is a member of Oconee Street UMC and is one of the leaders of the Court Watch program.