By Shane Sims
Maya Angelou once said, “ I have learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”
I first read this quote while I was in prison. It resonated with me so deeply that it changed the way that I interacted with people. Although I knew this truth intuitively, there was a conviction that followed actually seeing it in print.
Feelings are real things. In one way or another, they are tied to everything that we experience. The strength of our memory of something is directly related to how strongly that something made us feel. That’s why I can remember every detail of the day that the prison chaplain called me into his office, and told me that my 20-year journey through the Georgia Department of Corrections was finally coming to an end. He and I had a very close relationship. He was a mentor to me, as well as a lifeline during some of my most challenging times. So, although he could have gotten into a bit of trouble for showing me, he let me read the email from the parole board notifying the prison that the five members of the board had voted for my release.
Chap, as I still call him, had an awesome sense of humor and could be hilariously dramatic at times. This would be one of those times.
When I came into his office, he told me to close the door and have a seat. He was an older Black man, probably in his 60’s. His face was gentle, with an ever-present undertone of “don’t try me!” So, as he sat behind his desk facing me, staring at his computer screen, it was hard to read his facial expression. But I knew that something was up. After staring at the screen for what felt like a 30-seconds year, he finally spoke. He said that he had gotten an email from the parole board that was unlike any that he had ever received before. It was informing the prison on the release of an inmate, he said, but it contained a strange directive. The directive was that the inmate should be released to the work release program “ASAP”! The time frame is usually left up to the prison to determine, but, in this instance, the board wanted no delay on the release. When I asked Chap who the inmate was, he leaned back in his chair and clasped his hands on his stomach while looking directly at me. I knew what he was indicating, but couldn’t immediately wrap my mind around the idea that I was about to be released to a work program. But when he smiled and said ‘Congratulations!”, it all began to sink in. Up until that moment, it had been an ordinary day in prison life. That type of news just didn’t seem to fit. if I have to describe the feeling that washed over me, only one word still comes to mind until this day; surreal!
Prison has a way of completely consuming a person, especially when there's an indefinite sentence like life plus fifteen years. The first thing that it strips a person of is hope. After being confined to the same or similar space year after year, it can easily become all that a person knows, and more tragically, all that they remember. Conversations about “free world” experiences eventually give way to “chain-gang talk” as the mind begins to be shaped and molded by the experience. It becomes almost instinctive for the mind to simply forget about life outside of the walls as a coping mechanism. You won’t miss, bemoan, or yearn for what you don’t remember. Once prison becomes normalized, it becomes easy to forget that it is only part of the journey, and not a destination.
I realized this early in my incarceration. However, even with this understanding, I had to fight like hell to not get drowned in that ocean of hopelessness and despair. When I learned of my pending release, I realized that although i had survived the ocean, I wasn’t completely unaffected by the waves of despair. It took Chap’s reassuring smile, and a lot of subsequent self talk to convince me that not only was I about to go home, but I actually deserved it. I had worked hard on myself over the years, and I had done so not for my freedom, but for my life. I had decided that if I died in prison, I would die with my integrity intact. I lived by the saying, “ Just do the next right thing”. I believed that it would lead to a good end, but accepting that the end of my journey through the Georgia State Prison System was part of that good end was a little more difficult to accept.
I begin to rethink the major goals that I had set for myself if I was ever released from prison. The more I went over them, the more excited I became. All of the years that I had spent fighting off hopelessness and “chain-gang talk” was about to bear temporal fruit. The surreal feeling eventually gave way to elation. Maya was right: we may forget a lot of things, but the way something made us feel is not one of them. The day that I learned of my pending release - how it made me feel - is one that I will never forget.
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