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To Hellfair and Back: Isolation and the power of silence

By Shane Sims

I used to say that the worst part about prison is the isolation. The prison environment didn't allow for normal human contact or interactions. Every encounter that I had with another person, whether with staff or another inmate, was governed by both spoken and unspoken rules that were in place as constant reminders that I was no longer a part of normal society.

From having to ask for permission to speak before I spoke to certain prison officials - as a matter of respect - to having to really think before I chose to speak to certain inmates - out of abundance of caution - every interaction was loaded with negative potential. I witnessed individuals who forgot to ask for permission before speaking to prison wardens get berated, and even roughed up for the disrespect. I also witnessed what seemed to be normal conversations between inmates turn into a bloodbath. Forgetting or disregarding the rules of engagement could possibly result in humiliation or even death.

For many inmates, it just seemed more prudent to limit, if not eliminate, all forms of communication. As logical as this option may seem, it came with some dire consequences. It usually started or escalated the desocialization process. However, isolation seemed to be a necessary evil.

Beginning my prison sentence at Telfair State Prison is what shaped my initial perception of isolation. A large portion of the inmate population had been in prison in excess of 20 years, and the desocialization process for many of them was more than a decade in the making. I witnessed the effect first hand.  It was heartbreaking and, at the same time, scary for me to see so many older men, majority African-American, who had completely lost the ability to foster normal conversations and relationships. They had locked themselves in a bubble for protection but ended up suffocating instead. It instilled within me the determination to not become like them. Of course I wanted to remain safe, however, I also did not want to lose my ability to communicate with people. So, I asked for permission to speak when I needed to and was very selective about who I associated with, while taking advantage of every opportunity that I got to have positive conversations and interactions. So, the evening that I was handcuffed and hauled off to lock down in the isolation unit for what would be the first and the last time, it struck terror into my heart! I had fought like hell to stave off the isolating effects of prison, but was about to learn that isolation wasn't necessarily A bad thing.

 The hole, as isolation is called, was a regular prison cell block unit that had been modified to accommodate a 23 hour a day lockdown program. The hole was for inmates who either went there voluntarily for protection, were suffering from mental breakdowns, or for those of us who had allegedly broken some prison rules. My alleged infraction was having inappropriate communication with a female officer who had actually initiated the conversation.

 I was escorted to the isolation unit. As soon as we made it through the two large metal entrance doors, a feeling of dread came over me. Although it was summer time, the dorm was cold, dark, and dreary - even by prison standards.

 As I was walked past a row of about 10 cell doors to get to my cave located in the back part of the dormitory, I could make out eyes peeking through clear spots in the small dirty stained plexiglass door windows. I would later learn that some of the inmates had been in the hole, locked in cells, for 23 hours a day for more than a year. Many others had been there for several weeks and even months. The high point of their day was hearing the loud clank of the metal entrance door, then hearing an officer scream out the new resident's cell number. This indicated that someone new was being brought in, which gave the longtime residents a chance to see something and someone different; hopefully an old associate whose cell wouldn't be too far away. If they were close enough, they could communicate by laying on their stomachs and screaming at the top of their lungs to each other through the gap between the bottom of the door and the floor. 

Although it was extremely noisy in the lockdown unit during the day, it was eerily quiet at night. By the second night, it seemed as if I could almost hear people thinking. I realized that although the loud talking, screaming, and rapping was enough to drive you crazy, it was also a form of escape; the distractions saved you from thinking too much. However, when night fell, and the noise makers were worn out, the silence brought with it a flood of thoughts that could no longer be avoided. It was during this period, during those nights of complete silence situated between periods of complete chaos, that I had some of the deepest and most clarifying thoughts about life. Something within my perception shifted, and it changed me for the better.

 It was during my time in isolation that I developed a real appreciation for the power of silence. I realized that isolation wasn't an inherently bad thing. It is what you do during isolation that shaped that determination. Most inmates will someday return to their communities, just as someday the current pandemic and social distancing will pass. The chaos that preceded will return, and the real value of isolation will be determined by what was done during the period silence.

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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