From her makeshift home office on the island in her kitchen, Carmen Johnson picked up her phone and dialed the number for the clerk of the court, beginning what had become her near daily ritual since the pandemic upended the legal system and forced courts to go virtual.
Inside the county jail in Upper Marlboro, Md., sat 26 people who would be appearing any minute for their bail bond hearing in court — the first step in determining their path through the criminal legal system. Over Zoom, the judge would decide whether they would be waiting for their trial from home or a jail cell.
Also joining the Zoom call on this Monday afternoon in February, from bedrooms and kitchen tables across the country, were six strangers who had volunteered to witness the proceedings: two high school seniors, a retired Spanish teacher, a longtime restaurant worker, a graduate student and award-winning singer Fiona Apple, who would later use her spotlight the day of the Grammys to talk about the team and their fight for transparency.
Called court watchers, these volunteers are participants in a nationwide grass-roots effort to hold the judges, police and prosecutors of America accountable. Although they have existed in dozens of cities across the nation for years, operating mostly independently, the strain of the pandemic pushed the disparate groups to band together.
Led by the founders of Court Watch PG — two formerly incarcerated Black women — the groups are now pushing for greater visibility of their work and greater transparency in the courtroom.
For the last year in Prince George’s County, that has played out on Zoom virtual hearings, where volunteers have watched every bond hearing, every day. They have tracked in a database the name of the defendant, whether they were released or set free and the judge who made the decision.
But unlike the lawyers on those calls, the court watchers have not been granted video access, which means they cannot see the judge for themselves.
So every day, as Johnson calls the clerk’s office, the court watchers log in to their group chat and wait for her to fill in the blanks.
Johnson, 54, trained them all, preaching that “injustice happens in empty courtrooms” and explaining that they call all defendants their “loved ones” because nobody should face their bond hearing alone. Their entire operation — from the language they use with each other to the accountability letters they write to officials — is about personalizing a life-altering process that can feel like a cold assembly line.
For the past year, the stakes for these hearings has intensified as Prince George’s County became the state’s coronavirus epicenter and the disease began infecting prisons and jails across the country. Jury trials were canceled, then restarted, then canceled again.
Inmates at the Prince George’s jail, many of whom have not yet been convicted of a crime, have spent 23 hours a day in their cells during periods of the pandemic, waiting for trials that have largely been delayed since the courts first shut down in March 2020. Through it all, the population at the jail has climbed back up to prepandemic numbers, fed by the churn of daily bond hearings.
Johnson has sat through thousands of these proceedings for both violent and low-level crimes over the past year. She has seen pregnant mothers held without bail and listened to the desperation in people’s voices as they pleaded for their loved ones to be freed.
Along the way, Johnson determined that the decision to jail someone or let them go was rarely just about the crime they had been accused of committing. It was also about the perspective of the judge.
Which is why, when the clerk’s voice popped onto the line and told her who would sit on the bench that day, Johnson’s heart sank.
She typed the name into the Court Watch group chat.
“Oh Lord,” an observer wrote back.
'She's my teacher'
Carmen Johnson had been released early from federal prison for just over a year when she discovered Court Watch PG in 2019 and the woman who founded it, Qiana Johnson.
The two, who are not related, quickly saw themselves in each other.
Carmen ran her own business and was politically well-connected through her work with the state’s NAACP before serving three years in prison for financial crimes she said she didn’t commit.
Qiana had been working for the Department of Veterans Affairs before she was arrested in 2015 in connection with a real estate scam. When she got out of prison three years later, she founded Life After Release, an organization by and for formerly incarcerated women trying to reenter the world.
She soon became a regular speaker at events for other formerly incarcerated women, which is where she met Carmen, another Black woman broken by prison and looking for ways to give back.
At the time, Maryland liberals were pushing statewide bail changes, and debates about cash bond — which disadvantages the poor — were playing out in the county’s election for state’s attorney. A coalition of community groups wanted to get a reform-minded prosecutor elected, and Qiana Johnson, who was working with them through a fellowship program, started informally sitting in on bond hearings to learn what was at stake.
When the election ended — and a reformist, Aisha Braveboy, won — so did the coalition’s court-watching. But to Qiana Johnson, the work was just starting. Next she wanted accountability.
So Life After Release absorbed the court-watching program, and she began dreaming of a system where dozens of observers would write report cards for judges, monitor prosecutors and amass a database on bond hearings.
Carmen Johnson, she thought, could help. Qiana could not offer Carmen a salary, only an avenue to heal.
“She trusted in me and I trusted in her,” Qiana Johnson said.
“Whatever she wanted me to do, I was just down with it,” Carmen Johnson said. “I’m years older than her, and she’s my teacher.”
In February 2020, Carmen Johnson started court-watching every day, and slowly she felt her pain transform into purpose.
Then in mid-March 2020, as the coronavirus began to spread, courts closed — temporarily shutting off public access to bond hearings.
“I was like, what are we going to do now?” Carmen Johnson remembers thinking.
With court proceedings slowed, the small group turned to the jail population in Prince George’s. They advocated for the release of those who were medically vulnerable or charged with nonviolent crimes. When the state’s attorney’s office launched Operation Safe Release, aimed at lowering the jail population, their group began comparing their private database with the arrests listed publicly to figure out who was still in custody and who had been let go.
They raised money to bail people out.
But when bond hearings resumed in May, spiking as crime in the county rose, the women realized they needed help.
“Judges don't give a d--- about us,” Qiana remembers telling Carmen. “When they are going to start to care is when we have people power behind us.”
So Court Watch PG joined forces with national advocacy groups. Civil Rights Corps filed an emergency federal class-action lawsuit claiming coronavirus conditions at the Prince George’s jail were unsafe, and Zealous helped design and launch a viral campaign called “Gasping for Justice.”
In it, celebrities — including Apple — recorded statements from inmates who described unsanitary cells, prolonged isolation and a lack of mental health resources.
“It is easier for judges and prosecutors to order people detained under inhumane conditions when no one is looking,” the campaign said.
It urged the public to take action by court-watching.
Within a week and a half, 175 people had signed up.
Qiana Johnson and Carmen Johnson watched as their small enterprise transformed into a community of people across the nation who cared as much as they did about the courts.
One recent college graduate — who learned of Court Watch PG after protesting all summer with Black Lives Matter D.C. — helped overhaul the group’s database to enable deeper analysis of patterns. A Virginia high school student, who began court-watching on virtual learning days, built the group a new website. A retired high school Spanish teacher became the go-to court watcher monitoring interpreters and attorneys who talk over them.
Students in Howard University’s Movement Lawyering Clinic started court-watching, too, and they eventually wrote a harsh public critique of bond hearings that spread throughout the legal community.
It is now fighting for permanent virtual access to bond hearings — arguing that flexibility increases participation and transparency.
Court Watch PG has sent 100 accountability letters to judges, the jail, prosecutors and police, flagging concerns about misconduct, cell conditions and lawyer communications.
They also send letters to the office of the public defender, which Keith Lotridge, the county’s top public defender, said he welcomes. With more eyes on the courts, he said, everyone seems to be working hard to fix what’s broken.
“Covid has exposed so many flaws in the system,” Lotridge said. “One of the few benefits has been the ability of more people to witness those flaws. Going forward we’re seeing that the more community participation we have, the more voice the community is having in the results.”
Now, 120 people have cycled through Court Watch’s weekly training, which on one morning in late January included Fiona Apple.
When Apple appeared, Carmen Googled the singer’s face to confirm what she was seeing, then walked away from her computer to scream into her hands.
“Hello Ms. Apple,” Johnson remembers saying after collecting herself. Apple, hoping to go unnoticed, warmly greeted her back.
The singer had never heard of Prince George’s County before helping with Gasping for Justice, but she has become one of the team’s most prolific court watchers, volunteering three times a week and helping lead a committee focused on maintaining virtual access.
“It feels like you’re actually doing something useful” she said. “I don’t know if there’s any other feeling in the world. I mean, love is great, but being useful is another kind of love.”
Court-watching, Apple said, has opened her eyes to her own privileged pass with the law.
In her mid-30s, her tour bus was pulled over in Texas and she was arrested for felony hash possession. She was out of jail after one day, because she had a good lawyer and the money to afford her $10,000 bail. From afar, a friend wrote letters advocating for Apple to every single judge on the bench in that courthouse.
It made her realize the value of having “loved ones” who are invested and watching.
“You can’t just throw them away and no one’s going to notice,” she said. “We notice.”
'Here we go'
Some days Carmen Johnson was relieved to report the name of the judge to the Court Watch group, but today was not one of those days.
“Infamous, is she?” Apple asked in the chat.
“She’s very harsh,” another court watcher wrote back.
By this Monday afternoon in February, the court watchers had collectively observed 2,500 bond hearings, and their judge of the day was one who the court watchers considered least likely to let people out of jail.
The judiciary has said in statements that it welcomes feedback from the community, but emphasized that judges rule on the facts and the law, listening to arguments from defense attorneys and prosecutors about criminal history, community safety and the severity of charges before making a decision in any one case.
From their homes across the country, the court watchers called into the bond hearing and wondered what those decisions would look like today.
An unidentified voice began to crackle.
“Here we go,” sounded the chat.
In the first case of the day, they listened as the judge let out a woman charged with trespassing while trying to get help at a hospital. The judge then ordered a mother of four charged with driving under the influence and a history of similar charges to remain detained on no bond but referred her to drug court for potential treatment.
In the chat, the court watchers were confused.
“If her driving is a danger, why not release with condition not to drink and drive?” one court watcher asked.
“Exactly,” another chimed in. “Even house arrest would mitigate that ‘danger.’”
Back on the phone, a new lawyer was speaking about his 27-year-old client who had been charged with assault after she pulled a knife during an argument with a male acquaintance. Nobody was hurt, the defense attorney said, she had no prior arrests, she was not a flight risk.
The attorney said she had suffered a miscarriage only days earlier and had to leave a prior court hearing because she was vomiting blood. The man from the altercation told the judge he was not afraid and wanted her released.
“They need to let her go home and take care of herself,” someone wrote in the chat, but in court the prosecutor was telling the judge she was “exceedingly reluctant.”
“The court does have to think about the safety of this victim, even if he is saying he wants her released,” said the judge, who ordered the woman held without bond which allowed the possibility of release after review from the Department of Corrections.
The defense attorney said the charge would probably be dropped and his client was worried she could lose her job waiting for officials to release her. The judge, citing details from police in charging documents, did not budge.
The case was eventually dismissed — after the woman sat in jail for two weeks.
More cases followed: a chef charged with negligent driving who was punched in the face by police, someone arrested for attempted murder who just turned 19 and requested juvenile detention, and a man who had been released on bond, then rearrested and jailed, because of a clerical error.
“I feel like every case today has had a red flag,” the graduate student wrote in the chat.
“I would hate to be a loved one on today’s docket,” Apple wrote back.
As the day wound down, the group noticed a troubling theme: In half of the cases, defense attorneys complained they weren’t able to communicate with their clients ahead of the hearing. Many requested pushing their cases to the next docket for more time to prepare.
“Do you mind terribly, I’m so sorry, to wait until tomorrow afternoon?” a public defender asked her client in court in the last hearing of the day.
The defendant — a man accused of second-degree assault — said he had tried and tried to call. He needed to get out to help his elderly mother, and waiting meant at least another day in jail. But he relented.
“I have no choice in the matter,” the defendant said.
With that, the day was done. The court watchers dropped off the courtroom conference line and logged into Zoom, where they would soon see the faces of the friends they had been chatting with all day. They started to talk about their major takeaways from the day — where 26 out of 30 defendants remained in jail.
Carmen interrupted with some news.
She had heard the jail had changed its policy to prohibit defense attorneys from calling their clients — instead directing the clients to call their attorneys. The public defenders had been inundated all at once.
“It was an issue all around,” she said.
She advised the group to add it to their list of concerns for that week’s batch of accountability letters to officials.
“Now they’ll be able to keep track and see what’s happening here,” she told her watchers. “Which I pray it works.”