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To Hellfair and Back: The definition of Despair

By Shane Sims

The definition of “despair” is “the complete loss and absence of hope”

Before reading any further, I want you to take a moment to truly contemplate this word and its definition. Then, go a bit further and reflect on a time in your life when you felt despair. What did it do to your motivation? Your outlook on life?

Now, imagine the way you felt being intensified a thousand fold. If you are able to fathom this, then and only then will you be able to understand the gravity of what I am about to write: A prison system that is only concerned with housing, and does little or nothing to actually rehabilitate and offer hope to those incarcerated, is one of the greatest threats to a healthy society.

Now, to give this statement some context, consider this: there are more than 53,000 people incarcerated in Georgia. The majority of those now behind bars will eventually return to their communities. They will bring with them their experiences; and they will be what their experiences have made them.

One of the most destructive effects of the prison environment - rather, it’s atmosphere - is that it breeds intense despair. In addition to the cinder block walls, steel bars, and drab colors, there is the almost absolute loss of freedom and self determination. Then there is the noise and the silence; the former robs the mind of mental clarity, while the latter leaves it free to think too much. This deadly cocktail of a depressing environment, unnatural restraint, and an unstable mind can create a despair that is as destructive to the human spirit - all that is good within us - as cyanide is to the body. Without anything to counter it, this intense despair can snuff out a person’s will to live, and, subsequently, a proper regard for the lives of others. Of the many times that I have actually witnessed this happen to guys that I served time with, there is one incident that will probably forever be etched into my memory.

I met Jay about a year before the incident. He was a little older, but just like me, he had a long prison sentence. Perhaps that’s why we bonded. Although we were in different dorms, we often talked when we saw each other. The conversations were always positive. He seemed to be alright when we last talked; however, over the years that followed, I learned that a person can be dying inside while appearing to be perfectly alright. I was taught that it’s like looking at a duck glide across the smooth surface of a pond. While it may look peaceful and composed on the surface, just beneath the surface, it’s feet are paddling like hell just to make it look that way. I guess Jay grew weary of paddling.

By the morning following the incident, it was being talked about all over the prison. Jay’s room was towards the front of the dorm, away from the main population. Were it not for someone walking by and seeing him, that night would have been his last on this earth. Jay had taken the small blade out of a disposable razor, sat on the end of his bed, and commenced to digging into his neck with it. He had managed to go pretty deep before another inmate was able to get the razor out of his hand. No one could pinpoint any one thing that had happened to set him off, but I knew. At that time, the Georgia prison system offered very little in the way of rehabilitation and hope. And if you were unfortunate enough to have a lengthy sentence, then it was even worse because there was no end in sight. I surmised that Jay had resolved to make the ultimate sacrifice to escape the complete absence of hope.

Although Jay and I both had lengthy sentences, and the prison system offered almost nothing to give us a reason to continue living, we were different in one significant regard; my faith in Allah (the Arabic word for God) gave me hope.

I wish that I could say that Jay was an exception, but he wasn’t. For different reasons, it takes a while, if ever, for many incarcerated men to find the strength that emanates from within. Consequently, they look desperately for a saving grace within the things that surround them. If the prison system doesn’t provide for this need, then the prison environment will. And it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to understand that despair that turns to despair for hope will only result in the death of the human spirit. Most of the incarcerated will eventually return home to their communities. For a time perhaps they will look like ducks gliding across the surface of a pond. That is, until their feet grow weary of kicking like hell to make it look that way.

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

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