By Shane Sims
I may die in prison.
That realization hit me like a ton of bricks.
Just before sentencing, my-court appointed attorney and the state’s prosecutor both assured me that because I was a good kid I would be just fine. If I pleaded guilty, it would show that I truly regretted what had happened. I really did. Plus, a life sentence wasn’t as bad as it sounded, they reasoned. If I went in, stayed out of trouble, and did what I was supposed to do, I would be considered for parole in seven years, and wouldn’t serve more than ten. Then I could come home to my family and go on with my life. It didn’t dawn on me at the time that although my family had been very involved, my attorney and the prosecutor had arranged our little meeting that evening without even bothering to notify them. It was just us three. I can still remember sitting at the beautiful wooden conference table with a high gloss finish in Judge Lawton Stephen’s chamber, with my attorney and the prosecutor flanking me. They both looked and appealed to me with so much empathy and sincerity that I couldn’t help but believe that what they were saying to me was all true.
But it wasn’t. One evening, about a year and a half into my sentence, I found out that pursuant to a change made about three years prior to Georgia law governing parole consideration for life sentences, I could not even be considered for parole until I had served fourteen years! And I found out in the most hurtful way.
I had met Tosha at a Bible study at my grandmother’s house when I was about fourteen years old. Her mother and one of my aunts were best friends and actually lived together for a while. So, I knew of her but never got the chance to get to know her until that day. She was a bit older and pregnant, but super sweet. We conversed briefly and exchanged flirtatious glances during Bible study but wouldn’t see each other again after that day until years later, under much different circumstances.
I happened to be in the visitation room one evening when she came to visit her brother at the Clarke County Jail. She would later tell me how badly it had hurt her when she heard about me getting into trouble because I was such a good person, and when she saw me sitting on the other side of that plexiglass window, when she walked into the room, having a rather spirited conversation with my younger brother and a friend, she instantly fell in love. We got a chance to talk before visitation was ended. Neither of us had any idea that the relatively brief conversation that day would lead to a distant relationship, and, ultimately, marriage that would endure until this day. But it didn’t happen without more than our fair share of heartaches and disappointment; the greatest of which came the evening that she called the automated parole board line for the first time to check my status.
Although we both knew that it would be a while before I would be considered for parole, we had no idea just how long it would be. She entered my inmate number, went through the prompts, then listened in horror as the heartless automated voice said that I wouldn’t be considered for parole until 2009, nearly thirteen years later. She said she agonized over what to do before deciding to tell me what she had found out when she talked to me that evening. When she did, it felt as if the world stopped as I held the blue prison pay phone and listened in disbelief. Ironically, it wasn’t until after this revelation that I began to hear conversations about Senate Bill 441, the so called “get tough on crime” law that had within an instant crushed my hopes of ever being free again. The bill was passed in 1994 and enacted January 1995, more than a year prior to my secret meeting that evening with my legal aid lawyer and the district attorney. So, either they both were ignorant of one of the most controversial criminal statutes passed during that era or they had flat out lied to secure my guilty plea - without the input of my family. Both explanations were equally tragic, but the latter was most likely. For months thereafter, I was filled with hurt and anger every time I thought about how their feigned sincerity that day in Judge Stephens’ chamber contrasted with the hurt in Tosha’s voice that evening as she told me how they had lied By then, I had already seen time after time guys serving “old” life sentences get their hopes up for being granted parole upon their first consideration, only to be completely crushed when they received the one page letter from the board stating that it would be several years more before freedom was even a possibility for them. So, I knew that although I will have served fourteen years, my first parole consideration would go no differently. For the first time, I truly considered the possibility of never getting out of prison. And what hurt even worse was knowing that at that point, Tosha was serving the sentence with me.
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