Updated: Jun 13
By Shane Sims
I entered the Georgia State Prison system on the heels of one of the most brutal assaults against the inmate population in recent history.
Then-prison commissioner Wayne Gardner made a public determination that most prisoners were not worth the bullet it would take to kill them. He put together busloads of tactical squad members, then proceeded to go to several prisons throughout Georgia and wreak havoc upon the lives of countless numbers of inmates, traumatized staff, and ultimately, the system itself.
I would become friends or acquainted with many of the guys who lived through the brutality, several of whom had filed lawsuits, and I would hear story after story of how the tactical squads came into the dorms and beat many of the inmates into a bloody pulp with little to no provocation. Most of the inmates were Black. Wayne Gardner left in his wake beaten, broken, and even paralyzed men, and a prison system that had been just as devastated. He changed the name from the Department of Correction to Georgia State Prison, then removed almost all of the rehabilitative programs, such as college courses and inter-prison sports competitions. He single-handedly changed the culture of Georgia State prisons. It would be years before the name "Georgia Department of Corrections" was restored, and even longer before it looked anything like a place that encourage correction.
When I entered the system, Telfair State Prison was little more than a warehouse full of broken men. Those who were fortunate enough to not have witnessed the brutality experience it nonetheless through the stories that were recounted over and over by fellow inmates who weren't as fortunate.
My initial experience gave me and the entire inmate population all of the reasons in the world to hate the system, and everyone who seemed to represent it. Many of them did. However, I was fortunate enough to understand that I couldn't allow Wayne Gardner's actions to be an indictment of the entire system. It wasn't an easy determination to accept. However, I was fortunate enough to have a father who had survived extreme forms of racism while growing up as a Black star athlete in Watkinsville, Georgia, and, yet, didn't have a racist bone in his body. The wisdom that he instilled within my younger brother and I was that it is not who a person is, but, rather, how they are that makes a person good or bad.
It was this reasoning that not only carried me safely through my initial experience, but would also provide some balance for me years later when police body cams and cellphone footages would expose an epidemic that was country-wide; policemen brutality against African American Males. For a time, week after week, different footages were being publicized showing African-American males being killed by white police officers. I remember feeling what can only be described as rage building up within me with each passing incident until I had a sudden epiphany one evening while watching a news account of yet another black male murdered at the hands of a white officer.
My room was located on the second tier of the dorm. That evening, I was outside of my door leaning on the rail while watching the news account. By this time, inmates had begun watching the news religiously; particularly, the African-American inmates. The majority of the guys were watching the coverage from the bottom tier, sitting on cement benches. About midway through the story, I happened to look down at the guys sitting on the cement benches below. What I heard and saw stirred something deep within me. On the surface, there was anger, as conversations of retribution against the police - which, by default, included prison guards - began to fill the dorm. However, the longer I looked and listened, the clearer it became to me that there was something else beneath the anger and violent talk: there was also fear and hopelessness. A lot of it. In fact, I became certain that those two emotions were what was fueling the anger and talk of violence. For some reason, my own anger dissipated. My guess is that when I saw the two emotions that I most hated feeling (i.e. fear and hopelessness), I subconsciously chose to counter them by imagining possible solutions, and courses of action. One of those imaginings was that in order change the culture of police departments across the country, African-Americans must become more intentional about becoming a part of the culture, and affect change from within. At the time, I had no idea that almost 7 years later, not only would I be released from prison, but months after my release, I would be teaching police and community relations classes to graduating cadets for the Athens-Clarke County Police Department. I was in position to help affect a positive change within a culture that desperately needed it. What better opportunity than to be trusted to share my perspectives and lived experience with new officers? Shortly after teaching the first class, I was offered a position as a Muslim chaplain for the police department.
While anger and the urge towards violence are the more apparent emotions, we must understand and they very often stem from fear and helplessness. And the best way to counter these two emotions is by imagining positive ways to remedy the problems that evoke them, then executing a plan of action. If we put forth the effort, God will bless the results.
Shane Sims was born and lives in Athens. In 1996 he was sentenced to life in prison for an armed robbery in which an accomplice fatally shot a store clerk. Before being paroled 20 years later he served time in Telfair, Coastal, and Jackson state prisons. Among other things, Sims currently is executive director of People Living in Recovery, serves on the board of The Athens Reentry Collaborative, is chairman of the nonprofit agency Feed My Sheep, and is chaplain for the Athens-Clarke County Police Department