“Like Jim Crow (and slavery), mass incarceration operates as a tightly networked system of laws, policies, customs, and institutions that operate collectively to ensure the subordinate status of a group defined largely by race.”– Michelle Alexander
By John Cole Vodicka
Friends, we must acknowledge the 400 years of injustice that haunt us.
After enslaved African Americans arrived in Virginia four centuries ago, white settlers quickly demanded that the new world be defined by racial caste. And this caste system had to be maintained by wanton racial terrorism. Slavery itself denied the humanity of Black people. But this was not enough, and laws were created that criminalized slaves’ behavior. The 13th Amendment did not abolish slavery. Instead, it made an exception to those convicted of crimes. This enabled white folks to draw up the Black Codes, telling former slaves and their descendants that anything that challenged the racial hierarchy could be seen as a crime. Lynchings became commonplace. Convict leasing began. Our penitentiaries and workhouses filled up with Black bodies. As Bryan Stevenson has told us, African Americans went from “less than fully human slaves to less than fully human criminals. Slavery and Jim Crow cultivated a tolerance for employing any level of brutality” against Black people.
This appetite for harsh punishment directed at African Americans and people of color has continued in in this country – and Georgia – across the decades. The U.S. incarceration rate is the highest on the planet. Our nation represents 4% of the world’s population but 22% of its imprisoned. Today, some 2.2 million human beings are locked away in a U.S. jail or prison. Another 4.5 million are on parole or probation. Upwards of 60% of these numbers are people of color.
The presumption of “danger” and “criminality” still follows Black people everywhere, and perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in our courtrooms.
Each time I enter an Athens-Clarke County courtroom, I try to remind myself of journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’ (“The 1619 Project”) question to those of us who are classified as white: “Are we still willing spectators to what should be horrifying acts as long as we’re assured they’re in the interest of maintaining order?”
There were at least 60 people present in Superior Court Judge Patrick Haggard’s courtroom on this past Wednesday morning. Nearly half of this number were court officers: the judge, four prosecutors, four public defenders and as many as five other defense attorneys, two probation officers, a victim’s advocate, two bailiffs, three or four law school interns, the clerk, a court reporter and five deputy sheriffs. All but three of this total were white people. The two framed portraits hanging from the courtroom walls were of old white men. Sitting across the aisle from me in the gallery, were nearly 20 Clarke and Oconee County prisoners. All but a handful of this number were Black. Each prisoner was bound and chained, wearing orange, gray or blue jail clothing. One defendant, a woman, sat in the front pew talking to herself.
During the two hours I observed in Judge Haggard’s courtroom, prisoners and non-prisoners were called to enter not guilty pleas, ask for continuances, request a bond to get out of jail, admit to probation violations, or plead guilty and learn their sentences. One-by-one, they shuffled to the defense table to sit or stand during the few minutes of argument their cases required. Because prisoners’ hands are cuffed in front and chained to their waists, their pants often slip below their butt cracks as they waddle forward. On this morning, one of the public defenders mercifully tugged at his client’s sagging pants in an effort to make him more presentable during his hearing. Another prisoner received the same kindness from a deputy, who tugged and tucked the pants and shirt beneath the chain wrapped around his mid-section.
Attorneys – all white men – mingled with one another when they weren’t attempting to locate and speak to their shackled clients. Brief conversations with defendants were had in the courtroom, with defense lawyers having to first squeeze past the prisoners sitting in the pews in order gain physical proximity to the person they were representing. Attorney-client confidentiality was impossible. The lawyers used the tops of their legs to balance the documents on which their clients’ handcuffed signatures were needed. At no point during the morning’s proceedings did any of the lawyers ask Judge Haggard to remove the cuffs from their pretrial clients’ wrists.
Throughout the morning the clanging of chains was heard, the sound of metal banging against the wooden pews sudden and startling. Prisoners moved in and out of the courtroom under guard. When three or four were removed in order to return to the courthouse’s basement holding cells, three or four more entered from below to replace them in the pews. Occasionally, a shackled man or woman was escorted out to use a nearby bathroom. Several prisoners’ loved ones were in the courtroom to offer their support. They were not allowed to embrace them or talk to them. Even eye contact was prohibited. Nonetheless, these visitors managed to mouth “I love yous” across the aisle. Prisoners lifted their manacled hands to subversively wave hello or goodbye.
Several dozen felony cases were heard on Wednesday morning. On average, each case lasted no more than five minutes. A prosecutor read aloud the charges against each defendant. Defense lawyers asked that their cases be reset for a future date so that a deal might be worked out, or announced that their clients were ready to enter into a “negotiated” guilty plea with the State. Judge Haggard lectured one defendant who he determined had a “poor attitude.” He inferred that drugs were the cause of another prisoner’s recidivism. He listened impassively while a 54-year-old defendant – homeless and charged with “setting a fire” in the middle of College Avenue – argued for his pretrial freedom after having been locked up two weeks simply because he didn’t have money to post bond.
Very few prisoners spoke during these hearings, mostly because, I believe, none of them were invited to speak for themselves. Their captors held all the power. And so, the captives stood bound and chained and, figuratively, gagged. Only the auction block seemed to be missing.
The scene in our courtrooms is troubling, almost always. On last Wednesday as I watched mostly Black men and women in chains surrounded by white men (who were doing the talking) while their lives were being publicly scrutinized, chastised and punished, I asked myself again: “To what extent am I a willing spectator to these events? Why is it that I am come here at all?”
One of the last cases called in Judge Haggard’s courtroom involved a defendant whose mother, father and sister were present, sitting behind me on the back row in the gallery. Their loved stood before the judge and next to her lawyer. She too, was cuffed and chained, wearing an orange-and-white striped uniform. She faced serious felony fraud charges and learned she would have to spend yet more time behind bars, followed by ten years of probation. The prisoner was stoic as she her sentence was made official. Her parents were distraught.
As her family was leaving the courtroom, the bailiff sitting at the door rose from his chair. He gave them what looked to me a reassuring smile and quietly told them, “It will be okay.” He shook the father’s hand, and then placed an arm gently on the mother’s shoulder and walked with them out into the dimly lit courthouse lobby where they exchanged a few more words.
It may be dim light, I thought, but it is still light. And as James Baldwin wrote – and as I must constantly remember – the light is “always there, waiting to be found.” On this day, on this hard and otherwise dark morning, it was found in the eyes and kindness of a courthouse bailiff.
“One discovers light in darkness, that is what darkness is for; but everything in our lives depends on how we bear the light,” Baldwin continued. “It is necessary, while in darkness, to know that there is a light somewhere, to know that in oneself, waiting to be found, there is a light … What that light demands is faith.”
“A presumptively innocent defendant has the right to be treated with respect and dignity in a public courtroom, not like a bear on a chain.”– U.S. Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, 2018
All prisoners in the Clarke County jail appear in our courtrooms with their hands and ankles cuffed and a belly chain holding their arms close to the waist. The majority of them are African American. Almost every one of them is a pretrial defendant, that is, presumed innocent of the offense they have been charged with.
Chaining and binding prisoners is not right! It is cruel and unusual punishment!
Please contact the following individuals to urge them to change the ACC Sheriff’s Department policies and UNSHACKLE ALL Athens-Clarke County pretrial prisoners when they appear in our courtrooms:
Sheriff John Q. Williams: firstname.lastname@example.org
Chief Judge Eric Norris: email@example.com
District Attorney Deborah Gonzalez: firstname.lastname@example.org
Solicitor C.R. Chisholm: email@example.com
Monday night, 342 women and men were confined in the Clarke County jail.
248 of this total were African American.
There were also 18 Latinx and 1 Asian American behind bars.
40 women were locked away in our jail.
One 73-year-old – George F. – remained in custody, along with one 68-year-old; one 67-year-old; one 65-year-old; one 63-year-old and two 62-year-olds.
There were four 18-year-olds and eleven 17-year-olds in jail. A 15-year-old, Marquise M. was incarcerated in the Rockdale (near Conyers) kiddie prison, charged as an adult with murder.
Over the last seven days local law enforcement arrested and booked 111 people into the jail, 76 of whom were BIPOC. The oldest person arrested last week was a 76-year-old female. 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.