Time Served: Jails Overcrowded With “Innocent” People

With no bail, no trial, and a third set of lawyers, Kharon Davis lost almost a decade behind bars in an Alabama jail.

 

When Chrycynthia Davis’s name was called, she got up from her seat and walked to the front of the United New Jerusalem Church. She stepped carefully onto the main stage and up to the podium.

Television news cameras were trained on her. The audience in the storefront church quieted after clapping its support.

Davis wasn’t there to whoop a rousing sermon or recruit bodies for the next day’s protest march. She was there on a life-or-death mission: saving her son Kharon. He’s been in the Houston County Jail since 2007 on a capital murder charge. He was 22 years old then. He’s nearly 31 now.

“No trial, no bond,” Davis said, explaining her son’s predicament during her speech. “No due process of justice.”

Local jails are supposed to serve the pre-trial needs of local courts. They are for holding people in custody who have been arrested and charged with a crime. Unlike at state and federal prisons, jails terms weren’t intended to be long and punitive like post-conviction sentences.

“This is not supposed to happen,” said Patricia Mokolo of the Alabama NAACP to Message about Kharon’s nine years in jail without a trial. “We live in America. Aren’t you supposed to be innocent until proven guilty? What about due process?”

According to the Vera Institute for Justice, it’s quite common for American jails to be used excessively and punitively. The institute’s 2015 report “Incarceration’s Front Door: The Misuse of Jails in America” indicates that 731,000 people are housed in more than 3,000 jails in the United States every day. Nearly 12 million people are admitted to jails every year – which exceeds annual state and federal prison admissions by 19 times.

Houston County puts more people in jail per capita than 66 of Alabama’s 67 counties.

“One of the great travesties, frankly, of jail admissions right now is that we have people sitting in jail for long periods simply because they can’t afford to pay [bail],” Nancy Fishman of the Vera Institute said during an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air program earlier this month.

And because many jails assess fees for various services, it becomes even more difficult for inmates who are struggling to make bail. They can be billed for housing, as well as for any lab tests required by their cases, drug testing, drug treatment – and even to apply for a public defender.

“You’re talking about people who often come in in fragile economic situations and end up that much worse by the time they get out,” Fishman told NPR.

bw prison shot
Despite declining rates of violent and property crimes, America’s jails experience increasing populations, a substantial portion of which needs substance abuse or mental health treatment.

The Vera Institute study also concluded that people in jail are fragile in other ways: 68 percent suffer from drug and/or alcohol abuse, and 47 percent don’t have a high school education.

Nationally, there also are racial disparities in the use of jails. African-Americans account for only 13 percent of the U.S. population, but represent 36 percent of those in city and county jails.

Whether it’s due to inefficient reporting by the media, an intense law-and-order culture, or something else, there doesn’t seem to be much public discussion about high rate of jail admissions, the impact of fees on inmates, unusually long jail terms, or inequities in the jail population. Perhaps it’s because people forget that those in jail have not been to trial and consequently, haven’t been convicted.

“They are legally innocent,” Fishman told NPR.

Message requested an interview with Houston County District Attorney Doug Valeska about Kharon’s case, but didn’t get a reply. Valeska opted not to seek re-election and his term expires at the end of the year.

But Message was able to reach Michael Jackson, District Attorney  of the 4th Judicial District (Bibb, Dallas, Hale, Perry and Wilcox counties) and ask him about the nine years Kharon Davis has been jailed without a trial. Jackson, currently Alabama’s only African-American District Attorney admits that capital murder cases take a long time to get to trial. However, even he wondered about a defendant being held pre-trial without bail for nearly a decade.

“Nine years sounds a little extreme,” Jackson said.

As Chrycynthia Davis told her son’s story, at least 50 people sat in the purple-cushioned chairs in United New Jerusalem’s storefront auditorium. Some of them, like her, believe they or their relatives have been treated unjustly by the local police and, or, the District  Attorney. The Alabama NAACP has been investigating the concerns of Dothan residents for months. Earlier this year, the civil rights organization submitted affidavits on their behalf to the U.S. Attorney. Clark Morris, first Asst. U.S. Attorney for the Middle District of Alabama, confirmed that the NAACP referred some cases during a meeting but won’t confirm whether or not any investigations have begun.

Meanwhile, Kharon Davis is on his third set of lawyers and has spent almost all of his 20s in jail. His mom believes he has been in solitary confinement for 23 hours a day since 2014. Because of alleged infractions, she said he will be remain in solitary until 2019.

Davis believes that District Attorney Valeska wants Kharon to take a plea deal on his capital murder charge. She also believes that Valeska holds a grudge against Kharon because her father, James Kenneth Ward, was a civil rights leader in Houston County who often challenged the prosecutor.

Kharon 2006 copy
Through the looking glass of America’s broken jail system: Kharon Davis has spent nine years in a Houston County, Alabama jail awaiting trial with no bond. He’s spent 23 hours a day in solitary confinement, and his mother has been banned from visiting him for six months.

If it weren’t for occasional motion and status hearings, Davis would have seen her son only once since February of 2014. She was banned from seeing him for six months – and wasn’t given an official reason – but credits intervention from the NAACP for getting her a visit in August of 2014.

After that visit, she said Kharon was placed in solitary confinement and she hasn’t seen him since. She thinks it was because of a seven-page letter he tried to pass to her through his attorney. It detailed allegations of mistreat.

Davis said that letter was confiscated. The only reason she knows about it is because of a second letter that Kharon was able to sneak out to her, courtesy of a sympathetic, unnamed guard.

“Because he knew they were mistreating him,” she said, explaining the guard’s actions.

The only thing that may be more disturbing than a young man being in jail for nine years, without a trial, is the allegation that Kharon’s cell is the one where Martez Dozier was found hanged. Davis said he has been there since November of 2015. Kharon told her this in one of his letters.

“Apparently someone didn’t read it before it went out,” Davis told Message. “It came through regular mail.”

The NAACP described Dozier to the U.S. Attorney as a victim of police brutality, who was charged with punching a police officer. The Dothan Eagle reported that Dozier was trespassing when the confrontation took place.

Dozier was supposed to be released from jail Nov. 3, 2015, but was found in his cell the Saturday night prior. Jail officials called his death a suicide, but the NAACP told the U.S. Attorney that the family is still seeking answers because they have not been given access to autopsy and investigative reports.

All of these additional factors make Kharon’s case that much heavier for Chrycynthia Davis. She is fighting to maintain her focus.

“I used to be a miserable wreck,” she told Message. “God’s got me. God keeps me.”

 

 

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