On August 17, a grandfather died in an Atlanta jail cell.
His name was Alexander Hawkins. He took great pride in being a father and grandfather. Others knew him as a brother, an uncle, a veteran, a friend, and a beloved member of the tight-knit Baker Ridge Drive community in Collier Heights where he was raised. He also happened to be a former client of Georgia Justice Project.
Piercing through the numbing headlines – another death in a jail, another death in a cell – is the warmth of a man who was loved, who is mourned, and who will be missed. We did not know Mr. Hawkins for long, but we knew him well enough to know he’s far more than a headline.
Mr. Hawkins reached out to us in November 2022 asking for help not just for a legal issue, but to get well. His charges were like so many we see for people in the throes of a battle with addiction – drug possession and shoplifting. But unique individuals stand behind familiar struggles. In a span of just five months, Mr. Hawkins left a strong impression on the attorney and social worker who became his GJP team. At regular jail visits, it was the easygoing Mr. Hawkins lifting spirits and creating laughter. In the darkest of circumstances, he was a joy to be with - and he found hope.
This was not Mr. Hawkins’ first time seeking hope while in a jail cell. He was a man who had never committed a violent offense but had cycled through the legal system due to his addiction and petty offenses related to it. At 66 years old, he was tired and ready for a change, and looking for a chance.
We lost contact with Mr. Hawkins soon after his case was dismissed in April 2023. Our team had worked with him to access a drug treatment program through the VA. Mr. Hawkins was eager to try again – to be there for his family. We did not hear his name again until we saw the headline, the seventh death in the Fulton County jail in 2023 (there have since been three more deaths).
Mr. Hawkins and his family lived the heartbreaking reality that sobriety is not a linear journey. When we met him, Mr. Hawkins was once again ready to fight the addiction that haunted him more than 40 years – soon after his discharge from the army. Most people with substance use disorder go through treatment several times before it sticks. This rang true for Mr. Hawkins – he had been through treatment before and even had long periods of sobriety when he worked and stayed connected to his family. But in recent year, his struggle deepened, much to the sadness and frustration of those that loved him and hoped each time for a different outcome.
News articles and press releases stated the reason for Mr. Hawkins’ most recent incarceration simply: he was held on a shoplifting charge. But as is often the case when people are pulled into the criminal system, the reality was not so simple.
Mr. Hawkins, a 66-year-old man with health problems and an addiction he and his family longed he would put behind him, was arrested when accused of stealing a bottle of Aspirin. He was not cited. He was not asked if he needed help. He was not diverted to treatment. He was arrested, charged, and booked. He was charged with a felony despite his case being particularly minor – prior shoplifting cases led to the decision that taking a bottle of Aspirin should be met with the full force of the law, his past struggles a reason to punish more harshly instead of evidence for more holistic intervention and support. Bond was set at $5,000; payment of a mere $500 would have meant his freedom, but a lack of funds sealed the fate of a man allegedly presumed innocent until proven otherwise. In his poverty, Mr. Hawkins sat in a cage as some of the nation's most powerful and affluent individuals breezed through that same jail, charged with numerous serious felonies but able to afford far more expensive bail.
Instead, a grandfather with no violent history spent his final days waiting in a cell, captive to a system that knew him trustworthy enough to make him a trustee at the jail. In this case, his attorney argued Mr. Hawkins should be released to access much-needed medical treatment, despite his inability to pay bail. That request was denied. So, Mr. Hawkins kept waiting. Waiting for a prosecutor, a judge, a system, to move his case. He waited for another chance to become well.
Given the chance, would this have been the time treatment stuck? We’ll never know. But Mr. Hawkins and his family deserved to find out, far from the cold isolation of a cell.
We often speak of Second Chances, using the phrase in campaigns and legislation. In reality, we all make more than one mistake in life, and we always deserve another try. Many of us are lucky that our mistakes and struggles are not funneled into a criminal system whose vision of accountability is one of retribution instead of restoration. We do not have to sit in cages so dangerous that weekly headlines remind us of the deadly consequences they can bring.
Poverty, the nature of his struggles, and decades of policy choices meant Mr. Hawkins was repeatedly propelled into a system whose bedrock principles are not treatment or personal accountability, but instead unimaginative punishment that lacks a vision for hope. This was a system ill-equipped to solve the problems underlying his arrests. Yet as political rhetoric becomes louder, people like Mr. Hawkins face a future in which it becomes even more difficult to gain release pending charges so they can access supportive services, keep their families together, and preserve whatever stability they previously clung to. Indefinitely holding Mr. Hawkins did not keep our community safe, and it certainly did not make us more human.
So now we sit with our grief, and we sit with the question: Why? Why do we accept as given what conduct requires an arrest? Why do our commitments to healthcare and healing not match our obsession with punishment? Why does a history of petty offenses lead to harsher punishment instead of sparking urgent intervention? Why do people sit in jail based on their poverty, even when they’re no threat to others? Why must they wait in a cage indefinitely for charging decisions and a court process, even when presumed innocent? Why is there no oversight in a jail where life seems to have so little value? Why can we find no accountability?
And why must a family mourn the death of their brother, father, uncle, grandfather, and friend – lost too soon, lost before getting another chance, lost in a place willfully blind to his story.