By Shane Sims
Holidays are an almost essential part of American culture. They give us something to celebrate; a reason to be happy. We socialize, give gifts, and enjoy the temporary reprieve from the vicissitudes of life. However, of all the holidays that we observe, none is more celebrated than the New Year. It is a time of reflection, vows to change and renewed hope. During no other period throughout the year do people feel more determined to overcome the negatives and to pursue their best life.
The New Year gives us the chance to recreate ourselves, change our unpleasant circumstances and, thereby, renew our sense of purpose - unless you are in prison serving a sentence that is longer than the number of years than you have lived. Under these circumstances, holidays, especially the New Year, look and feel much different. Once the realization that you may never experience another one outside of the prison walls finally sets in, not only is there a tendency to hate holidays, but the New Year - the time of change and renewed hope - becomes the most hated.
I can still remember this one New Year's Eve in particular, during around the fifth year of my incarceration. I was leaning on the rail on the second floor, which enabled me to see the entire dorm. The television was set on channel five, and I was watching half-heartedly while the music blared as artists performed, revelers danced, lovers hugged, and the clock counted down the last 10 seconds. It finally struck “0”, the ball dropped, confetti fell, the people screamed in wild abandon, and happiness filled the atmosphere. However, this took place only on the television screen.
When I looked around the dorm, I immediately saw what I was feeling. Although I had tried to force myself to feel excited, I just couldn’t. Most of the guys had long before gone into their cells, turned off the light, and shut themselves in. I suspected that warm tears were saturating many dingy pillowcases behind those closed doors. The few that were still awake stared blankly at the television screen. The celebrating was like shots fired into our hearts. Instead of the New Year bringing hope for better days, it was only a reminder that we had 365 more bad ones to languish in that dungeon of despair.
This was a fact that no amount of resolutions, promises or determination to change could alter. I could almost see the hurt that we all shared. And it seemed like we all went out of our way to avoid looking into each other’s eyes. I'm not sure if it was out of fear of showing our vulnerability, or ,simply, embarrassment. I finally picked myself up off the rail and went into my cell. My roommate was already on his bunk. He was under his covers, facing the wall. I eased the door close so that I wouldn’t disturb his hurt. I’m pretty sure that he was still wide awake - probably staring at the cinder block wall. I crawled into my bottom bunk and pretended as well. The first tear hit my dingy pillowcase. At some point, I finally escaped to unconsciousness.
Although I don’t usually end my column with any exhortations, I will make an exception here. If you have a loved one in prison, know that the holidays are hard for them. You don’t even have to ask. Please support them in whatever way you can, and please be mindful that you are experiencing them very differently. Holidays are an almost essential part of American culture because they give us brief reprieves from the many stressors that are also a part of it. However, in prison, it's hard to pretend when the last thing you see before sleep and the first when you wake up are cinder block walls, and a New Year that reminds you that you have another 365 days to sleep and awaken to the sight.
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