Take Off the Shackles and Treat Defendants With Dignity

A defendant in shackles at the ACC Courthouse. Credit: Kevin Moran

“No man can put a chain about the ankle of his fellow man without at last finding the other end fastened about his own neck.” — Frederick Douglass

I invite you to come to the Athens-Clarke County Courthouse on either a Wednesday or a Friday morning. 

If you are there on a Wednesday, come to the third floor at 8:15 a.m. Sit just outside Superior Courtroom No. 2 on one of the benches or chairs that face the elevator marked “for security use only.” Keep your eyes on the elevator.

If you are in the courthouse on Fridays, go up to the fifth floor around 10:30 a.m. Head back to the State Court lobby and sit on one of the benches just outside this courtroom, facing the same security elevator. And, again, keep your eyes on the elevator door.

At some point, whether you are sitting on the third or fifth floor at the specified time, you will witness the elevator door open and, inside, find anywhere from one or two, maybe as many as five or six, bound and chained, orange or gray jumpsuit-clad prisoners. They will be standing in the elevator’s compartment, lined up back-to-back and facing you, accompanied by a sheriff’s deputy. The deputy will lead them off the elevator, the prisoners’ chains rattling as they shuffle into the courtroom, feet shackled, hands cuffed and bound by a belly chain. The prisoners have been brought up from the courthouse basement, where the holding cells are located.

Kevin Moran

Once in the courtroom, the prisoners are assigned seats on the benches farthest away from the courtroom’s entrance and the courtroom personnel and observers. The prisoners’ presence cannot go unnoticed. When they sit down on the wooden pews, there are loud clanging sounds of metal meeting wood. The backs of their uniforms are stenciled “JAIL” or “CLARKE COUNTY JAIL.” The handcuffs separate each hand by only a matter of inches, and those cuffs are affixed to the belly chain so prisoners’ hands are forced close to the waist. The ankle chains limit the wearer to baby steps when walking. The total effect is that prisoners are unable to sit or stand up straight, and, while in the courtroom, their bodies are forced into a perpetual slump, sometimes unable even to lift their heads up to eye level with those around them. 

When their cases are called, these defendants—almost all of whom are pretrial and have not yet been adjudicated on the charges they’ve been jailed on—will hobble from the courtroom bench to a table where their attorney is sitting, facing the judge. Often, as they are waddling to the table, a sheriff’s deputy has to walk behind them to tug on their clothing, pulling their shirts down or their pants up to cover their exposed buttocks. With some prisoners, particularly those who are elderly or physically challenged, the deputy will have to help them steady their steps by holding their elbows or grabbing hold of the chains wrapped around their backsides. Still, there are prisoners who stumble, whose legs buckle, who trip over a chair leg, who practically fall out of the chair when trying to sit next to their lawyer.

“Your honor,” announced one defendant as he sat in the chair at the defense table, “my pants are falling off. Can somebody pull them up for me, please?”

If a prisoner is going to testify at the proceeding, it is impossible for them to raise their right hand when being sworn in. At best, an index finger can shoot up from a manacled hand. If the defendant is presented with any paperwork—guilty pleas, bond conditions, probation sentencing forms—he or she will have to strain to get their hands above the table top for a signature. If these defendants in pretrial bondage need to wipe away mucus or tears, they are out of luck.  

As humiliating as all this has to be for those brought bound hand-to-foot from our jailhouse to our courthouse, it can get even worse. Prisoners in the courtroom must signal to a deputy sheriff if they need to use the bathroom. Sometimes a deputy will ask out loud, “Number one or number two?” Number two requires, mercifully, that the handcuffs and chains be removed once the prisoner reaches the toilet stall.  

For me and for everyone else who volunteers with the Athens Area Courtwatch Project, it is always shocking to see people—the vast majority of whom are Black—in shackles. It smacks of something from the Middle Passage or Jim Crow era. It’s humiliating and demeaning. And it certainly sends the message to defendants, as well as to courtroom personnel and observers, that all the rights the courts say people have—particularly that they are innocent until proven guilty—are essentially meaningless.

Those of us who regularly observe ACC courts believe that anyone who is jailed and is brought into our courtrooms ought to be treated, at a minimum, with dignity and respect. Instead, as the great-aunt of a Black defendant told me one day in the courtroom, “It looks like slavery days. It ain’t human, and it ain’t right.”