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To Hellfair and back: Voting is a precious right and tool for change, so don't squander it

By Shane Sims

No matter what side of the political aisle you may be on, I believe that the one thing that most, if not all, people will agree on is that we are living during some precarious and unprecedented times. Things are much different from anything that most of us have ever witnessed, and from the America that the Constitution seems to envision.

For me, the most unnerving part of our present reality is the violence. Most of it seems to be emanating from convictions held within the heart rather than musings of the mind. When it comes to violence, there is a big difference between the two sources. For the sake of perspective, they are as different as the violence of a terrorist is from the violence of a gang banger. In the case of the latter, it is usually a defense mechanism, the product of an individual’s interaction with his environment. When either the individual is removed or the environment is improved upon, the tendency towards violence usually subsides proportionately. This is something that I have witnessed time and again. However, in the case of the terrorist, it is a different ball game. Good job opportunities, better education options, living wages, and a safer environment will not motivate him to not detonate the next bomb. He is driven by something much more difficult to change: his violence is the result of his beliefs, i.e. convictions held within the deepest part of our being – the heart. A person completely identifies with, lives by, and is even willing to kill or die for his beliefs, the consequences be damned.

I first witnessed this type of violence one evening after dinner while at Telfair State Prison. It had been a relatively uneventful day. I decided to be the first in line when dinner call was announced over the dormitory’s PA system so that I could get to the dining hall, eat, then ,hopefully, return to take a shower before everyone else returned to the dorm. There were several advantages to this, most notably the few minutes of peace and quiet that I could enjoy before the commotion that quickly fills a large cement room populated by 80 men took over. There were six shower stalls: three upstairs where my cell was and three downstairs. They were nothing more than cinder block cubicles closed off by plastic shower curtains. My plan had been perfectly executed, and I was enjoying a nice quiet shower when the silence was broken by the unmistakable sound of shoes screeching against the waxed floor. Although I was quite sure of what the sound was coming from, I was not prepared for what I saw when I walked to the shower curtain and peeked out. It was not just another chain gang fight. It was what appeared to be a murder in progress. The first thing that I remember noticing was the amount of blood that was on the cell wall. The next thing I noticed was the blank look in the guy’s eyes as he repeatedly stabbed his roommate with a makeshift knife. Apparently, it had begun in the cell and the two had somehow made it just outside of their cell door. There was a trail of blood where the older man who was being stabbed had slid down the wall into a sitting position.

The stabbing seemed to go on forever. The officer had no idea what was happening because he was standing outside, in the front of the dorm waiting to sign guys back in as they returned from the dining hall. I stared in disbelief as I watched the inexplicable act of violence. I felt a deep sense of helplessness. There was nothing that I could do. Eventually, the officer noticed what was happening, and called for backup. He was wise enough wait for help to arrive before even attempting to climb the stairs to where the cell was located. He too wore a look of helplessness on his face. Fortunately, the assailant tired himself out, and simply walked back into the cell and waited to be escorted to isolation.

For a long time thereafter, I wondered how the stabber felt when he snapped out of whatever trance he was in, and his sense returned. I would eventually get the chance to find out. He was released from isolation and placed back in the same dorm a few months later. I wanted to do the only thing that I could do at that point; I wanted to understand what had driven him to such violence. I watched him for a few days before I got my chance to say, “What’s up!” The unexpected greeting turned into about an hour-long conversation about life and prison. By the time I finally got around to asking him what had happened that day, I believe that he was expecting the query. I soon found out that he did not just “snap” that evening. In fact, he was in the right state of mind, he said. He held some deep-seated beliefs about respect that he believed was worthy of death if violated. His “old ass roommate” had violated, and he was duty bound to administer the consequences, consequences be damned. That was my first up close look at the remorseless and irrational nature of violence that emanates from beliefs held within the heart, and the destruction it can cause.

It’s hard to explain how the whole situation left me feeling. In fact, I had almost completely blocked it out of my mind until a similar feeling of disbelief began to develop within my heart as I have watched the current violent state of affairs unfold, the worst of which is the largely avoidable havoc that COVID-19 is wreaking upon our country. There have been more than 230,000 deaths, and every reputable authority on infectious diseases has stated over and again that many of the deaths could have been prevented by doing something as simple as wearing a mask. I am not likening the disease to the callous individual who calmly explained why his deep-seated beliefs dictated his violent actions against his roommate. The disease is unconscious, unaware.

However, this is not the case with the people through whom it’s transmitted. We are quite conscious of the fact that this disease is killing nearly a thousand people daily in our country, and we are quite aware that this slaughter is in large part perpetuated by those who refuse to wear a mask.

Although this is a medically established fact, many are ignoring it because of beliefs. I recently had a conversation with a highly intelligent associate who refuses to wear a mask. When I quoted the conclusions of the CDC to the effect, he stated that he was aware of them. When I asked why he does not then wear a mask, he stated that the coronavirus is just part of a conspiracy. I instantly felt a dreadful stirring within my spirit. I recalled how the stabber explained his actions all those years ago. I knew that there was no chance of convincing him to act otherwise because his was a matter of belief: and he is willing to kill and even die for the sake of it. Despite all the empirical evidence, including a mutual friend now deceased from COVID-19, he has chosen to abandon facts for feelings, citing as his authority the individual who occupies the White House.

As a convicted felon, I have at least another six months before I have any chance of retaining my voting rights. Someone recently asked me how it makes me feel to see what is going on in our country, but not being able to vote. There are no words that can completely capture how I feel. Instead, I told him the story about having to watch a man with terrorist-like convictions stab another man almost to death on account of them, but not being able to do a damn thing to stop it.

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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