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To Hellfair and back: Hope against hope

By Shane Sims

The only thing worse than losing hope is being filled with false hope.  Unlike optimism, false hope is to be filled with ideas and ambitions that are absolutely beyond the realm of possibility. Even worse is when false hope is born out of desperation. It's like the lost desert traveler who is about to die from thirst, then suddenly sees a beautiful oasis where just seconds before there was only sand. When the mirage disappears, so will his will to live.

I don’t know of any place or situation in which false hope can so thoroughly destroy the human spirit in this manner than behind prison walls. Telfair State Prison was full of men who had all but lost the will to live. The majority of inmates there were serving sentences ranging from 20 years to life without the possibility of parole. Due to the fact that it was a high security prison, inmate movement was closely monitored and very restricted. So, time passed dreadfully slow. As for those who lacked initiative or the ability to be proactive, and create a life for themselves out of nothingness, they served their sentences one minute at a time. And every second of those minutes was filled with thoughts and longing for freedom. Two of the worst periods of time for an inmate serving a lengthy sentence are in the beginning, when the reality that you will not be going home anytime soon finally sinks in, and somewhere midway through - if there is a midway - when you have served so much time that you begin to feel that prison is home. Like a lost desert traveler dying of thirst, the mind begins to desperately search for relief. It will find an oasis, even if it has to create one. 

One of the greatest sources of hope for inmates in that situation was rumors. They were unsubstantiated beliefs that could be partially accepted, rejected or even added to create whatever level of hope needed. It didn’t matter if the conclusion drawn from the rumor was completely untenable. All that mattered was that there was finally light at the end of the tunnel, a silver lining in the sky, a pool of fresh water in the middle of the desert. The inmate would receive, shape and mold, then hold on to the rumor for dear life. I saw a guy willing to even defend the rumor with his life. 

This particular rumor was that due to the over-crowdedness of the Georgia prison system, a lot of inmates were about to be released. Even violent offenders. The sources of the rumor ranged from the news to someone's cousin's friend's uncle who had a nephew who worked for the parole board, and had the inside scoop. Never mind the fact that after watching every major news station night after night, and even seeing reports of new get tough on crime laws that were being contemplated, it became obvious that the rumor was a complete lie, Paco still insisted that the rumor was true. It had to be. He was finally being considered for parole after having served 20 years, and this was God's way of helping him, he reasoned.  During a heated argument with another inmate about the veracity of the rumor, he told him that he was just a hater, and he would stab him if he kept saying that the rumor was a lie. Fortunately, the other guy let it go, and Paco went to his cell and slammed the door. A few months later, Paco received a letter from the parole board saying that he would have to serve at least another five years. It devastated him, and seemed to have drained the life out of him. It also paralyzed him. One evening, I went to his cell to talk with him. He had already served a little more than half of his sentence, and I wanted to share with him some things that he could do to increase his chances of making parole the next time, or even for early parole. He listened, but just didn’t have the energy or motivation to follow through. His spirit had been destroyed. Needless to say, there was no mass release; nor was there the tens of other times that the rumor resurfaced over the period of my incarceration. 

My heart broke for Paco. He became cynical, and, even worse, hopeless. However, it was then that I became firm in my resolve to remain hopeful, but realistic. When rumors of hope surfaced, I did my best to ascertain the truth before allowing them to take up any space in my mind. I am sure that that mentality saved me on many occasions from suffering a similar fate. I’d rather deal with reality, no matter how harsh it was, than to end up drinking a handful of desert sand.

Plus, I surmised, I couldn’t change what I wasn't willing to face.

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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