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Putting Principles over Passions at the Clarke County Jail

Shane Sims (second row, far left) stands with the first group to graduate from the Principles Over Passions program

By Shane Sims

It has been more than a year since I wrote my last article for Classic City News due to an increasingly busy and hectic schedule. A lot has transpired since then - within this world, within our community, and consequently within myself. Most of it has been good (I'm a "glass half full" type of guy). However, even the most optimistic must acknowledge the presence of a lot of bad stuff as well.

Before venturing down that path , I want to share some of the things that I'm grateful for today; I am grateful for my now 18 months old son who absolutely adores his father (and I adore him), for a very stable, supportive, and love-filled relationship with a woman who shares my passion for people- especially those suffering, and the opportunity to facilitate a self-designed, 8 week peer recovery support/mentor group at the Clarke County Jail that I've named Principles Over Passions.

I recently graduated from the program its first cohort. It was an awesome event. Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz graciously accepted my invitation to be the guest speaker. More than 73 percent of the men that started the program - some of the most troubled at the jail - graduated. The 14 men seemingly floated into the packed room one by one wearing expensive suits donated by a local church and huge smiles. A song by Jidenna, "Classic Man," and words, sounds, and cheers of admiration filled the atmosphere as each man took his seat.

Athens Mayor Kelly Girtz was keynote speaker at the Principles Over Passions graduation

For most of the men, it was the first time that they had accomplished something of this magnitude. They were proud, they were celebrated, and I knew from spending two days a week with them for the last eight that they were also changed! Four of the men that started the group with them had since been released. Two of them voluntarily entered a 12-month treatment program that I co-direct and a third has an awesome job and entirely different life. The graduates carried them in their hearts. They also carried the one that relapsed. "Principles Over Passions " had taught them to love their brother through his struggles because we ALL are capable of making some terrible choices.

And this is where I have to venture back to the initial point: a lot of bad stuff has happened since my last article. The worst of it, in my opinion, has been the lack of compassion and empathy for those that are suffering. And much of that "lack of" has been displayed right here on the CCN site, in the comments sections following articles that cover some very bad choices made by men and women that are suffering from some very bad things. Thefts, robberies, murders have been some of the outcomes. Suffering is begetting suffering. We rightfully grieve for the victims. I often pray for them.

But I also pray for the alleged perpetrators.

Getting ready to graduate

Not only is this what scripture tells me to do, it is also what my heart, humanity, and faith compels me to do! Perhaps those prayers are the reason Chief Deputy Sheriff Woods reached out to me one evening several months ago concerning the men locked down in the jail's Special Housing Unit. Dorm 11. This is where the alleged perpetrators in many of the CCN articles are housed. The Chief acknowledged that being on lockdown for 22 to 23 hours a day was hard, and the guys in the unit were, in turn, making it hard for the officers. Suffering was begetting suffering. He said that Sheriff John Q. Williams wanted to bring resources into the lockdown unit and thought that my program would be a great start. After a couple of months spent working out the details, I walked into my assigned dorm and into the lives of "my guys", and the magic began to happen.

And it happened for and to ALL of us - including officers that were at first skeptical.

As the men were guided over the first few weeks through a process of exploring their past traumas and the negative characteristics or "Passions" that they had produced, you could see life emerging from the ashes. It is one thing to know that you should change certain negative behaviors, but it takes it to a whole other level when you can actually UNDERSTAND and SPEAK about the causes of them in a supportive environment. It is empowering because understanding creates ability, while acceptance and support gives you the courage to do the work. I've gained this knowledge not just through my education and training, but also through my own lived experiences. I know first-hand how hurt and childhood traumas can shape and mold your feelings, perceptions, and, consequently, choices. So, I wasn't surprised when my guys - the "criminals" that were the "scum of the earth" and "deserves to be in jail for the rest of his life", according to some CCN comments - shared about experiences ranging from molestation to having one parent murder the other. There had been no counseling, no consoling, and no coping skills imparted. It was just them left alone - as a child -to deal with the terrible memories and raw emotions. How could that depth and degree of unaddressed trauma not produce some negative "Passions"?

Although I encourage the guys not to speak about their cases, I conduct my own research. It was no surprise that the ones that had the most serious cases had also suffered the greatest traumas. However, I also knew that they were not beyond salvation. Understanding, support, and love have done for me what I know they could also do for them. It made me whole again, which is the best way that I can describe it.

Through Principles Over Passions I simply give what I have received. One day when one of my guys joined the group looking especially distressed, I knew exactly what he needed. I stopped the group and walked over to where he was sitting. I looked him in the eyes and asked him if he needed a hug. To the surprise of many of the guys, he said Yes. I held him for several seconds as I felt the tension drain from his body. He looked up at me afterwards and said, "Thank you.". Today he is home, happy, and working in a field that he loves! He still calls and thanks me for the group. Although the past wounds are not completely healed, they are exposed and addressed. He now knows what to do with them.

He and the rest of the guys in the program have a set of four self-identified "Principles" that they have committed to live by. I've explained to them that while the negative "Passions" created by their past experiences have led to some bad choices, they are valid, and therefore should not be ignored or suppressed. Instead, if they live by the four "Principles" that they have adopted for their lives - and check their thoughts, feelings, and decisions against them - those "Passions" will fuel their purpose rather than the burning fire they have felt within.

Within the eight weeks, talk of the program has spread throughout the jail and made it a more hopeful place. However, for me the greatest delight is knowing that these men likely will never be the subject of articles in CCN covering the hurt that hurt produces within our world and community, and they will never again be the object some of the terrible comments that often follow.

Meanwhile, instead of focusing on the negatives in our world and community, I will continue to plow the field, till the soil, and plant the seeds of compassion and empathy that our world needs.

Shane Sims is a lifelong resident of Athens who uses his life experiences, which includes having served a state prison sentence, to assist others in making better life decisions. Among other things, he is executive director of People Living in Recovery, codirector of Modern Pathways to 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 and Clarke County Sheriff’s Office.

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