Convicted of nothing, woman jailed for nearly two weeks for lack of $33

Nancy G.

“Corn cannot expect justice from a court composed of chickens.” 

―African proverb

By John Cole Vodicka

Nancy G. is 54 years old. I took this photograph on this past Friday morning while she and I stood outside the Athens Homeless Day Shelter on North Avenue. Thanks to the Oconee Street United Methodist Church’s Community Bail Initiative, I was able to post her cash bond so she could be released from the Clarke County jail. 

In the photograph, Ms. G. is enjoying her first cigarette in 13 days. On June 13, charged with misdemeanor battery and obstruction of a 911 call, Ms. G. was jailed. A good security (cash) bond totaling $33 was set the next morning in Magistrate Court. Ms. G. appeared virtually at that five-minute hearing. She told the judge she had no money – “not even $1” – and would not be able to post any cash bond. She was not assisted by an attorney during this first appearance hearing, nor did she see a lawyer at any time during her near-two weeks in confinement. As best as we can tell, no one attempted to assist Nancy G. during the entire time her pretrial liberty was denied her.  

Nancy G. went to jail on the afternoon of Sunday, June 13. On Monday morning, June 14, she appeared remotely from the jail for her first appearance bond hearing in Magistrate Court. Judge Benjamin Makin presided. Georgia law now prohibits judges from setting “no cash” bonds in misdemeanor cases involving family violence. During Ms. G.’s hearing it was apparent that were he still given a choice in the matter, Judge Makin would have released Ms. G. on her own recognizance. Instead, he imposed what he told her was the smallest cash bond he could – $10 each on the “battery” and “obstructing a 911 call” charges. With the sheriff’s $13 add-on fee, Ms.G.’s bond totaled $33. 

“What if I don’t have $33?” Ms. G. asked Judge Makin. “I’ll check tomorrow to see if you are still in jail and we’ll go from there,” the judge told her before moving on to the next case on his docket.

I checked the jail roster on Tuesday evening, June 15, and Nancy G. was still locked up. I checked again on Wednesday afternoon. She was still incarcerated. I sent an email to the public defender’s office to alert them about Ms. G.’s situation. I received a response the next day, saying their social worker would visit Ms. G. at the jail.  

Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday. I continued to check the jail roster and each day Nancy G.’s name was listed. I wrote the public defender again to ask why it seemed nothing was happening to help Ms. G. gain release from custody. I received a rather snooty non-reply reply, informing me of lawyer-client confidentiality issues (as if that somehow explained why a pretrial client of theirs continued to languish in a jail cell). Judge Makin also responded to an email, telling me in essence that the matter was now out of his hands. At the end of the day this past Thursday, June 24, Nancy G. was still in jail.

On this past Friday morning I drove to the jail with some cash in my wallet. I told the deputy sheriff at the front desk that I wanted to post bond for Ms. G. He made a copy of my driver’s license and had me write down my cell phone number. When he found Nancy G.’s name on his computer screen, he sounded incredulous. “Ten dollars … geez.”

A few minutes later another deputy entered the lobby to collect $33 from me and had me sign some paperwork. She told me to “sit tight” and that they’d have Ms. G. “delivered shortly.” Thirty minutes later the same deputy returned with a receipt for the $20 good security bond and the sheriff’s $13 add-on fee. She also handed me a copy of the conditions Ms. G. would have to follow while she is out on bond. She’s barred from the residence where she was staying at the time of her arrest. She must report to Advantage Behavioral Services within three days of her release. The paperwork also informed me that Ms. G. would be arraigned on the two misdemeanor charges on July 8 in State Court.

“She’ll be out soon,” the deputy told me before disappearing behind a steel door.

Another half hour went by and finally Nancy G. appeared from behind the same jail door. She was wearing polka dot pajama pants, a dark blouse and a windbreaker, the same clothes she had been wearing when she was arrested. We walked toward one another and I explained to her who I was, that I had been following her case since she was arrested on June 13, and had accessed a community bail fund to gain her release. I asked her where she wanted to go. 

The jail hadn’t provided her with a face mask so I gave her an extra one stashed in my car’s glove compartment. “Are you a smoker?” she asked me. I told her no. “God, I could use a cigarette!” she moaned. 

We drove to the Athens Homeless Day Shelter. On our way there, I asked some questions while she searched through a quart sized zip-lock bag that contained her identification, jail paperwork, a coin purse and some jewelry.

Slowly she put on a couple of bracelets, then several rings, a pair of hoop earrings and a necklace. She zipped open her coin purse and counted out some loose change. “I have 28 cents,” she announced.

“How was it in the jail?” I asked her. “It was … OK,” she responded thoughtfully. “I met some good souls back there. And I cried a lot. It was good that I could cry. I needed that.”

“Did you ever see a lawyer?” I inquired. 

“No. I saw someone who told me to go to Advantage when I got out.”

The Day Shelter was closed. Thankfully, a worker did respond to our tugging at the locked door and Ms. G. was able to add her name to the long list of folks who use the shelter’s mailing address in order to receive documents from the ACC courts. She was also able to grab a couple of sausage & egg biscuits that someone had dropped off earlier that morning.

“This will be my lunch.” I gave her a little money to tide her over for a short while.

And a lone woman sitting at a table outside the Day Shelter gave Ms. G. a cigarette!  

Nancy G. hoped to find a shelter bed Friday night at either Bigger Vision or Salvation Army. She didn’t. But she did manage to locate a friend who was gracious enough to put her up this past weekend. She called me from a borrowed cell phone on Saturday evening to let me know she was safe. She said she had obtained an ID from Salvation Army but wouldn’t be able to access a bed there until Monday night, she hoped. She also intended to take the bus to Advantage today to check in as ordered by Judge Makin.

Ms. G. left me a voice message on Monday. She’d landed at the Sparrow’s Nest on Prince Avenue. “I took a shower. They let me wash my clothing. They gave me some red and white shoes and some perfume. And I had to read the Bible a little bit.” She said she’s alright. Her voice sounded strong. “I’m OK. I’m not afraid.” She didn’t mention a shelter bed at Salvation Army.

Nancy G. has been charged with two misdemeanors. She is homeless and poor, and because she did not have the $33 to buy her way out, she stayed in our jail for 13 days. During that time she never spoke to an attorney. No one petitioned Magistrate or State Court to ask why this human being remained in jail day after day after day.  

In our criminal legal system’s court of chickens it seems that no one cared.

Sara Mae M. appeared remotely in Magistrate Court for her first appearance hearing on last Wednesday morning. Judge Donarell Green presided. According to the police report, Ms. M., a 59-year-old African American, was charged with shoplifting “a $36.26 bag of food from Walmart.” 

Normally, this would be a misdemeanor offense but, because Ms. M. had previous shoplifting convictions, a fourth arrest mandated that she be charged as a felon. If convicted of this latest attempt to put food on her table, she could now be sentenced to “no less than one, no more than 10 years” in confinement. The law also states that upon conviction of a fourth shoplifting offense, someone like Ms. M. cannot have the first year of her sentence be suspended, probated, deferred, or withheld. That means she would have to serve one full year in prison. Judge Green, recognizing Ms. M.’s desperation, granted her an Unsecured Judicial Release (no-cash) bond, provided she stay out of Walmart.

As of Monday night:
331 women and men were confined in the Clarke County Jail.
237 of this total were African American. There also were 14 Latinx and 1 Asian American behind bars.
42 women are locked away in our jail today.
One 73-year-old, George F., remained in custody, along with one 67-year-old; two 65-year-olds; one 63-year-old and one 62-year-old. All told, 51 people 50-years-old and older were in confinement.  
There were three 18-year-olds and nine 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 100 people into the jail, 65 of whom were BIPOC.

The oldest person arrested last week was 65.  The youngest was 17 years old.

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