By Shane Sims
Conflict in prison is not a matter of if it will happen, it is a matter of when. The only thing that you can hope for is to have some control over is how it turns out.
One of the biggest mistakes that new inmates often make is not mentally preparing themselves for conflict. They assume that if they are cordial and respectful to everyone and avoid bad company, then they can become invisible to the chaos that surrounds them. It didn't take me long to learn that this passive approach only makes you more vulnerable.
My lesson came only months after arriving at Telfair State Prison. The teacher was a 6-foot-something, 300-pound predator that everyone called “Cowboy”.
As if his size alone wasn’t enough to intimidate the young guys that he targeted, Cowboy was also an ex-boxer who spent hours every day making an open display of his speed and agility. He would spar against an imaginary opponent in the most visible corner of the dorm. I noticed that in between bobs, weaves, and counter punches, he would cast quick glances around the dorm to see who was watching him. Of course, most of us were.
While some were glad that they weren’t the imaginary foe who seemed to be taking the most brutal beating, others, particularly young guys like myself and Eric, were fascinated with his skills. And Cowboy knew it. He had been in prison for more than 30 years, and, as I would learn, was an expert at detecting and exploiting youthful vulnerabilities. And the one that most of us shared was the want - rather, the need - to defend ourselves.
I began talking to Eric around my fourth day in the dorm. He was also young, quiet and observant, which is what drew me to him. It turned out that we had a lot in common, including life sentences. The one thing that distinguished us was that he was much more naive. I believe that Cowboy realized this, which was why he targeted Eric instead of me.
Although I was intrigued by his fighting skills, I kept my distance from Cowboy. Something just didn’t seem right about him.
Eric, however, couldn’t resist the opportunity to learn how to beat the hell out of someone if he ever needed to defend himself. So, when Cowboy offered to teach him, he jumped at the opportunity. Every time that I recall what happened in the weeks that followed, I picture the Venus flytrap. Eric was lured in by a nectar that almost cost him his manhood.
For the first week, Cowboy and Eric jogged, did push-ups and sit-ups, and worked on throwing jabs. Every night before we locked down in our cells, Eric would recount the lessons learned with the joy and eagerness of a puppy, while I continued to watch from a distance with scrutinizing eyes. What I began to see as the weeks passed on was that they spent more and more time in Cowboys cell, and less time working out and training. I became concerned about my friend, but he would assure me that it was all good.
Although I had a bad gut feeling that wouldn’t go away, I had to respect the fact that Eric was a grown man. Besides, he had just as much of a right as I did to serve his time however he saw fit. I had resigned myself to this point of view, until the night Eric bust into my cell enraged and in tears. Cowboy had made sexual advances towards him. When Eric got up to leave, the mask came off. He said that Cowboy became aggressive and began to talk about all that Eric owed him for the boxing lessons and food he had fed him. Fortunately, Eric managed to get out of the cell. We later learned that Cowboy had raped quite a few young guys over the years.
Seeing him in that condition took me to a very dark place. Eric might have been naive, but he was a good person. And he was the only person on earth that I considered a friend. The last thing that I was going to do was watch him get victimized, so I broke the Golden Rule of prison and refused to mind my own business.
I had hoped that Cowboy would just back off after seeing Eric’s reaction. But it only seemed to embolden him. So as he pursued my friend, we began to plot against him. After a couple of days of weighing our options, we decided that nothing less than the most drastic measure would stop him. We both knew that it would cost us dearly, but what would cost us even more was letting things to continue to brew until he built up the nerves to rape my friend. That wasn’t going to happen. And telling an officer wasn’t an option because those types of complaints weren’t treated with any level of seriousness.
The night before we planned to make our move, God intervened. An older Muslim inmate named Hakeem had quietly observed the entire ordeal. He told us as much, before going into Cowboy’s cell and closing the door. There was a bit of a ruckus, then silence. Hakeem walked out and told Eric that he had taken care of Cowboy and that he needed to be a little more like me. I started working out that same week.
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 program coordinator for 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