JOHN COLE VODICKA: A retired activist is still an activist
By Doug Monroe
John Cole Vodicka retired from his job in Minneapolis in 2018 and moved with his wife Dee to Athens to be near their new grandson, Ezra. The thing is, he didn’t
retire at all. He’s still doing what he has done since graduating from the University of New Orleans in 1974: working passionately on behalf of poor, homeless, and mentally ill people who have run afoul of the criminal justice system. Or, as he calls it, the “criminal punishment system.”
As an activist, community organizer, and writer focused on the issue of criminal justice reform and its many tentacles, Vodicka is now a familiar presence in the Athens-Clarke County courtrooms. He interacts with prisoners, families, judges, prosecutors, lawyers, and sheriff’s deputies in pursuit of fair and compassionate treatment of the accused.
Vodicka coordinates the all-volunteer Athens Area Courtwatch Project, based at the Oconee Street United Methodist Church as part of its Racial Justice Task Force. The project has six regular court-watchers from the church as well as some retirees who’re not affiliated with OSUMC, plus University of Georgia students from such majors as law, social work, psychology, even business. Last year, the project had 36 unique court-watchers.
“We have someone observing in the courtrooms at least three days a week. We regularly observe Magistrate Court bond hearings, Municipal court arraignments, and hearings of all sorts in State and Superior Courts,” Vodicka said.
Volunteers undergo training. Municipal Court Judge Ryan Hope has been one of the trainers and welcomes the observers to his courtroom, where he is focused on transparency with a livestream of proceedings. “I try to treat them as a fly on the wall.
“As a judge, I appreciate that some want to know what is going on in court. Most people want to turn a blind eye,” Hope said. “At times, a proceeding can be boring. It’s certainly not ‘Law and Order.’ But even in the boring moments important things happen.”
Vodicka, whose college degree is in journalism, sends out a newsletter chronicling what he and others have witnessed in the courts. He also researches lynchings in Northeast Georgia and writes for Flagpole Magazine.
His heart-wrenching Aug. 4 column drew shock and widespread attention. The body of a homeless, mentally ill woman — Nancy Gallagher — was found compacted and dumped in the Walton County landfill on July 22. Vodicka knew her and had tried to help, posting the $33 cash bail she could not afford that kept her jailed for 13 days. He led a memorial service on her 54th birthday and wrote in his newsletter about “the scourge that is mental illness.”
Many prisoners have been locked up for months because COVID-19 has postponed grand juries and jury trials. And many others are homeless and suffer from untreated mental illness or substance abuse. Vodicka describes the system as a “plea mill,” where prisoners plead guilty to a lesser charge simply to get out of jail on probation.
There are some successes. Vodicka was able to help an impoverished homeless woman get out of jail after nearly a year behind bars for two misdemeanor charges, later dismissed, and an unresolved felony case of making “terroristic” threats. Her not-guilty plea was postponed by the COVID-19 backup. Once free, she moved in with a niece.
“If I had to measure our success by society’s standards, we’d probably score low,” Vodicka said. “And, in fact, we aren’t in the business of measuring success at all. Our mission, so to speak, is to just be present, to be proximate to those caught up in the system who otherwise have no voice.”
Courtwatch is collecting some data, specifically on the bail bond system — who gets bail and who doesn’t, who has to pay to get out of jail and who doesn’t. “We’ve established a small community bail initiative to bond folks out of jail who otherwise can’t afford to pay for their freedom.”
It can seem like a never-ending assignment. “I’m in the courtrooms three or four mornings each week, observing bond hearings, arraignments and pleas — dozens and dozens of cases. It’s frustrating — and alarming — to see so many poor people, most of them people of color, caught up in a system that functions as a revolving door and that has very little to do with community safety and justice.” But while he sees the system itself as inhumane, Vodicka singles out Magistrate Judge Donarell Green and Public Defender Ryan Ignatius, who “keep a light shining in what can otherwise be a very dark place.”
Vodicka strongly opposes the policy of keeping all prisoners handcuffed and shackled as they enter the courtrooms. As one prisoner’s family member told him, “It looks like slavery days. It ain’t human and it ain’t right.”
[The Courtwatch Project] is accomplishing what we set out to do. That is, be present in the courtrooms of ACC,” Vodicka said. “We’ve helped to open the doors, maybe just a crack or two, but it’s happening. It’s a ‘ong haul project, for sure.”
“Unfortunately,” he said, “we are bound to see more and more people caught up in the criminal legal system as our community tries to recover from a pandemic that has left many people in crisis, without jobs, faced with eviction and loss of housing, unable to cope with the stresses in their lives.”
Although Vodicka earned a journalism degree, his heart was in activism from the beginning. As director of the Louisiana Coalition on Jails and Prisons, he began fighting the death penalty after the U.S. Supreme Court restored it in 1976.
In fact, one of his New Orleans lectures helped inspire Sister Helen Prejean’s opposition to the death penalty. The New Orleans nun wrote the best-seller “Dead Man Walking,” which was later made into a movie.
Vodicka’s career has taken him from Louisiana’s Angola Prison to the mean streets of Oakland, California, to West Virginia, and then to Georgia, where he founded the Prison and Jail Project in rural Southwest Georgia, which he directed for 16 years in Americus, followed by eight years in Minneapolis where he worked for a housing service.
Now a fixture in Athens, he finds room for a life beyond the courtrooms, reading, listening to music, and visiting with Ezra on the weekends.
To volunteer for the Athens Area Courtwatch Project, contact John Cole Vodicka at 612-718-9307.
Doug Monroe is an Atlanta native and UGA graduate who spent 40 years as a journalist. He moved to Athens in 2014.
(Photos courtesy John Cole Vodicka)