Updated: Jul 22, 2019
By Shane Sims
Prison is a microcosm.
Every type of personality can be found within its walls, from the “Gandhis” to the “Gottis,” and
they are all forced to coexist within the same small confines of dormitories.
During my first few months at Telfair State Prison I did very little talking and a lot of observing. I would often sit on my small plastic gray trash can just outside my cell door on the second tier and just look and listen to the guys and conversations around me. My cell was at the back, which enabled me to see the entire dorm.
Sometimes I had the sense of being in the Twilight Zone because of the inexplicable craziness that surrounded me. I didn’t know it then, but many if not most of Georgia’s prison inmates have some form of mental health diagnosis. Had I known that it would have better prepared me for some of the things that I witnessed during my first year. But as it was, I couldn’t fathom, for instance, what could possibly drive a man to drop a heavy floor buffer machine from the second floor onto the back of the head and neck of a totally oblivious man sitting at a table down stairs, leaning over a pile of what looked to be strips of paper spread across the table. He never saw it coming.
I found out later that the victim was the dorm’s sports-betting “parlay man”, and the strips of
paper were actually tickets that had been played. The buffer dropper was angry because he
didn’t hit on his ticket and the parlay man wouldn’t give him a free play. To make matters worse, I also learned that there were quite a few guys that saw him hoist the heavy buffer on top of the railing, aim, then release, but not one of them said a word in warning or protest. When I expressed my dismay, I received a long lecture from the older inmate about one of the Golden Rules of prison: mind your business! I would break this rule time and again over the years to come.
One of the best things that happened for me during that period was my detail assignment as a teacher in the GED program. That was when I was finally able to begin to make sense of the chaos around me. In addition to teaching reading comprehension and applied mathematics, I did a lot of talking and even more listening. I would listen to one heartbreaking life story after another, and the three recurring themes I noticed were abuse, absent fathers, and extreme poverty. Eventually I would become convinced that trauma was at the core of the mental health epidemic, which, in turn, was at the core of the seemingly inexplicable criminality. I met many “Gandhis” while teaching who had become “Gottis” by necessity. As I began to understand the reasoning and dispositions of my students in the context of their lived experiences, it also shifted my perception of the things that happened around me. It was as if a veil was being lifted.
Instead of seeing complete chaos, I saw hurt, anger and disappointment being expressed
through the only median many of the men knew; violence. I even became acquainted with the buffer dropper some months later and realized that he wasn’t the monster that I thought. In fact, he had a good sense of humor and was very intelligent. The parley man had disrespected him, he said, and he couldn’t let it go unchecked. If he would have, he reasoned, then others would have felt that they could do the same or worse. So, he viewed the attack as a strategic preemptive maneuver that might deter any future adversaries.
However, there were still some individuals that I just couldn’t figure out no matter how hard I
tried. A tall slim and quiet guy who went by the nickname “Killer” was one of them. Another one of my observation posts was my cell window. It was just wide enough to see out of. I would spend several minutes to an hour or so just watching and listening to conversations as guys walked up and down the sidewalk past my dorm. I quickly noticed Killer. He never walked on the sidewalk. He always walked on the dirt, against the recreation yard’s fence. He stood out because in addition to traveling the unbeaten path, he always wore dark shades and would often seem to be rapping (judging from the gestures he made with his hands) or maybe talking to himself. I rarely saw him talking to anyone unless he was participating in a rap cipher. He was a very talented lyricist. However, as soon as the session ended, he immediately went back to being a loner. That appeared to be his comfort zone. I would soon learn why: Killer aspired to become a professional hit man. Although it was never confirmed, I believe he had had some practice while in prison. I suspect that the same Golden Rule that left the parlay man nearly paralyzed also prevented me from getting an answer about Killer. My own violation of the rule would put me in a life-threatening situation soon thereafter.
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