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To Hellfair and Back: Escaping from prison through books

By Shane Sims

Prison is a dark reality that will eventually, and periodically, pull you towards an abyss of despair. Even the most optimistic person quickly learns that merely “thinking good thoughts” is no match for the wave of negative emotions that will sometimes flood your heart without warning.

And the effects upon a person can be drastic. I once witnessed what started out as a friendly game of basketball turn into a bloody brawl, seemingly without warning. Later that evening when I asked the aggressor what made him go after the guy, all that he could say or explain was, “Big bro, I just got tired all of a sudden!” I knew intuitively that he didn’t mean “physically” tired. I nodded in understanding, and gave his shoulder a firm squeeze before I walked off, leaving him with his feelings.

I had heard often during my formative years that the best way to deal with a problem is head-on. Prison made me question the veracity of this belief. It is difficult, if not impossible, to face the reality that your life is confined to a small cell or dorm - especially while the cinder block walls and barbed wire fences serve as constant reminders - and be okay. That’s largely why so many guys turn to drugs, perversities, and even violence during the first five years of prison; they are desperate for relief. Anything that takes their minds off being in prison is a welcome distraction, no matter the cost.

I was no exception. I wanted to neither think about nor see where I was. I was just as desperate for an escape. However, I was fortunate enough to have entered prison with a much healthier option than many of my fellow inmates; I had a love for reading and learning new things. There is an old saying in the African American community that goes, “If you want to hide something from a Black man then put it in a book,” with the implication being that Black men hate to read. I gave the lie to that assertion. I looked for life in books. They became my escape.

My love for reading was rekindled while in the county jail. I got into a religious debate with a Muslim inmate that sent me scrambling for information that would prove my point. What I found instead was how much I didn’t know. One book led to another, then another. The more I learned, the more my perspective changed. One of the greatest benefits was that I became aware of how much I didn’t know, which made me more tolerant of what others did.

While in the county jail, I was very limited in what I could read. The library was skimpy and the only thing that could be sent or brought to the jail was a Bible or Qur’an. Prison was different. I learned that not only could family and friends mail you just about any type of literature, but I could even order it myself. It didn’t take me long to find a bookstore online that sold books to inmates at 50-percent off. I was ordering books every month. If my parents sent me $200.00, half of it was spent on books. And I read every single line of every book. I read everything from psychology and self-help books to those written by religious scholars. Not only did reading increase my knowledge of a diversity of things, it, just as importantly, gave me a reprieve from the thing that was driving many of the guys around me even deeper into the wilderness of prison; hopelessness and despair. I treated my books like my most prized possession, because they were. I was particular about who I loaned them to, and if the individual that I loaned a book to went more than a couple of days without at least starting the book, I would politely ask for it back. My books were the only set of keys that I had to my cell door and I had no intention of losing them.

I have often wondered how much differently things would have turned out for me if I couldn’t read, like so many of the guys that are in prison. I spent several years teaching GED prep, and what I learned both hurt and angered me; the average level of education is 6th grade. In addition to this, most guys scored lowest in the area of reading comprehension. So, not only was an escape through reading and learning not an option for them, the ability to process things was severely handicapped. This dynamic made them vulnerable to the destructive avenues of escape because they were more readily available, and they couldn’t even comprehend just how badly those choices were going to end. Each time I witnessed or heard about someone escaping to their destruction I became even more particular about who I loaned my keys to.

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

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