By Shane Sims
April 26, 1996 is a date I will never forget.
Instead of preparing for my first year of college I was standing in a courtroom, bound in shackles and listening to Judge Lawton Stephens explain why he was sentencing me to life plus fifteen years in prison.
I was paying the price for my role in an armed robbery that resulted in the death of a store clerk. Although I never handled the weapon, the judge explained that my participation in the robbery made me just as guilty as the one who pulled the trigger.
I can still hear his voice, firm and dispassionate, as he read out the facts of my case. I remember thinking to myself that there were so many other facts that were known, but never mentioned. I wasn't a bad kid. Unlike my co-defendants, I had kept a job since middle school. My parents’ drug addiction and my home environment left me with two options: either sell drugs or work.
I chose the latter, and while taking care of myself and my younger brother, I managed to fight my way through school. I was in my senior year. My co-
defendants had all dropped out long before. My association with them was the result of a toxic blend of events. The restaurant where I worked closed unexpectedly a week before I ran into them. We lived totally different lives, so it had been years since I last saw them. I lived on my own, had my own car and needed money. They lived on the streets, walked, and had a lot of ways to make money! I gave them a place to live and a car to drive, and they showed me a quick way to make money.
One month later, I was shipped off to prison. When I stepped off the bus, I could instantly sense the hurt, hopelessness and anger trapped within the confines of the cinder block walls. I, along with about 40 others that were on the bus, was herded in, stripped, completely shaved, and eventually locked in a 6 x 9 cell which I had to share with another inmate, even though there was only one bunk. I laid my thin mattress on the floor by the cell door and took my place among the living dead.
Later that night, my cellmate informed me that the creepy looking hallway right across from our cell led to death row. I rolled over and did something that resembled sleeping. I had been told that my stay at the prison was temporary; after I was fully classified, I would be assigned and shipped to a permanent prison. The word permanent sounded so ominous. And it was.
I arrived at Telfair State Prison, known to prisoners as Hellfair where, only months before, a brutal band of tomb raiders wearing correctional uniforms had come through on a mission to seek and destroy. As I would soon learn, less than a year prior to my entry into Jackson State Prison, then-Georgia Department of Corrections Commissioner Wayne Gardner stated publicly that most inmates weren’t worth the bullet it would take to kill them.
Gardner had tried to change the culture from one geared toward corrections to simply housing, and to make prison stays so uncomfortable that released inmates would never want to come back.
Apparently, that was his justification for taking several busloads of tactical officers into several different prisons and launching unprovoked bloody attacks on inmate populations. Several inmates sustained lifelong injuries, including an older guy with whom I later became close friends. He Was beaten into paralysis of his lower body for daring to urinate while the tactical officers were in the dorm.
He and several other inmates filed and won lawsuits against the GDOC, but that did absolutely nothing to mitigate the trauma, injuries, and constant pain that my friend will have to live with for the rest of his life. Listening to description after description of the events that took place at the different prisons that day at first angered me beyond description.
However, eventually my emotions morphed into something greater: a deep passion for life and an almost paternal compassion for people. In some strange way, it prepared me for what began to feel like an assignment from a Higher Source. I wanted to leave everything and everyone I came into contact with better than how I found them. I wanted to counter the damage that had been done not just by corrections commissioner and his band of raiders, but also by life in general. Of course, I couldn’t articulate it this way at the time, but I felt it.
My desire for life and love for people quickly distinguished me from many of my fellow inmates. By the tenth year and third prison into my sentence, my reputation had spread throughout the prison system.
Three wardens came to know and trust me enough to risk their reputations and even careers by petitioning the parole board for my release. There was about a five-year span between the first and last petition, but on February 3, 2016 I returned to my beloved family and community a free and much better and wiser man.
What I experienced during my 20-year journey through an over-crowded, often violent, and always volatile penal system full of damaged men shaped, molded and sometimes beat me into the space in which I am today.
I attribute much of my personal growth to my passion for people and life, that the passion with which I now write. In these articles, I will share with you the lessons, insights and wisdom gained over the course of my 20-year journey with the prayers that my words will leave you even better than they found you.
Shane Sims was born and lives in Athens and is the current program coordinator for the nonprofit PLR (People Living in Recovery) with CARES, CPS-AD certification, chaplain for the Athens-Clarke Police Department, chairman of the board for the non-profit Feed My Sheep, board member for The Athens Reentry Collaborative, motivational speaker and owner of Real Solutionz Mobile Detailing.