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To Hellfair and back: Freedom

By Shane Sims

A little more than a year ago, I received an email from a Mr. Joe Johnson, whom, I would learn, is the publisher of Classic City News. He had heard a lot about me - my life’s journey - and the subsequent work that I was doing in the community; and he wanted to meet with me, he wrote, to discuss the possibility of me writing a column for Classic City News, sharing my lived experiences within the Georgia Department of Corrections. The aim would be to educate the readership of the CCN, while offering inspiration through accounts emphasizing the power of faith, hope, and gratitude.

My meeting with Joe was all at once empowering and intimidating. While I had long before stepped into the role of advocacy and being a voice for the voiceless, it was coincidental to my work as a motivational speaker. Being able to write a column that focused primarily on my experiences within the criminal justice system, as well as those of the countless numbers of men that I came to know during 20 years of incarceration, gave me a bit of a pause. This would be a huge platform that could be used to influence people, perceptions, and policies in a way that could positively affect the lives of many of the tens of thousands men and women still behind prison walls. My work would no longer be about me or my audience; it would be primarily about and on behalf of some of the most vulnerable members of our society. I could almost hear them imploring me to make the most of the opportunity.

I accepted Joe’s offer, while praying for the ability to be of real service to them.

Over the past year, I have written articles that have evoked within me some of the best as well as worst memories. Some were about death while others were about life. Some were about the opportunity for growth while others were about the dehumanizing effects of prison environments. I have intentionally moved from one end of the spectrum to the other from one article to the next with the hopes of making what I believe is one of the most important points that we all must internalize if we hope to survive and grow through the vicissitudes of life: Things are going to happen to and around us, both good as well as bad. Within each occurrence, there is the opportunity to develop a deeper and more meaningful understanding of ourselves as well as life, if only we face them with faith, hope and gratitude. There is no greater proof of this reality than witnessing it within the lives and stories of others. My articles were meant to place them at your disposal.

While I will continue to share with the CCN readership these empowering accounts and stories, Joe has offered me the opportunity to come from behind the prison walls with my columns, and share with you my experiences, concerns, and perspectives as a returning citizen. I am grateful, but, again, keenly aware that I have to articulate them as clearly and concisely as possible because I will be giving you insight into lives of the many men and women reentering our communities daily with a much different experience within, and, therefore, perspective of the world as it is today. Just as it is said that the best seasoning for food is hunger, the faith, hope, and gratitude that it takes to survive prison intact are the most powerful shapers and molders of the heart and mind. I once met a man who had spent so many years looking for a reason each day to be thankful while serving more than two life sentences that he was able to find wisdom and hope within the most mundane things. One evening, a bug crawling across the floor of his cell became the source of one of the most powerful lessons about courage that I have ever received. I don’t profess to have that depth of insight, but life as I experienced it during two decades of confinement has made me much more sensitive and aware of the more subtle gifts sometimes buried within both the good as well as seemingly bad experiences.

I look forward to continuing to share my experiences and perspectives with you, especially in the context of life as it is today. My hope is to be able to inspire you to not just tolerate, but actually learn from the many different bugs within our world, societies, communities, families and lives that seem to serve no purpose but spread the germs of fear, hurt, and hatred. If only we could view them from another angle, we may realize the beautiful lessons that they bear. While I hate the circumstances that led to my incarceration, I love the appreciation I have for the yucky looking caterpillar turned beautiful butterfly that teaches and shows us the amazing gift of faith, hope and gratitude.

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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