By Shane Sims
Of all the questions I am asked about my 20 years in prison, “What was it like?” is the one most often asked. It’s also the most difficult to answer.
I can tell a person about the day a friend of mine was found dead in a cell with a bed sheet tied around his neck. It was ruled suicide by hanging. This conclusion didn’t explain how a man who was 6-feet-7 could hang himself with a sheet from a vent that was only five feet high. I can describe all the details of the events, and the apparent cover up, but that will not explain how I experienced them. It wouldn’t explain the hurt, the anger, the grief that I felt. It wouldn’t capture the resultant sense of vulnerability and, even worse, hopelessness.
For me to do justice in my answer to the question, I would have to describe all the things that happened to and around me, but also – and more importantly – how they affected me.
That is what I am endeavoring or to do by writing these columns.
However, I want to state from the outset that it wasn’t all doom and gloom within those prison walls. While the bright and happy days were relatively few and far between, they did happen. There were the occasional cookouts, sports tournaments and other activities.
On such days the atmosphere would be filled with laughter, lively conversations, and friendly but intense trash talking as baskets were scored and home runs were batted. On those days, those brief moments, we could pretend that we were free, and we were human. I recently found a softball championship picture that I had taken while housed at Coastal State Prison in Savannah. I was wearing a pair of prison issued nylon shorts and mesh hat and sitting on my haunches with a tall trophy between my legs.
What really struck me about the picture was my smile. In it, there were no traces of the hurt, anger and grief that I had carried within me all those years since my friend’s death, nor of the countless number of other events that had since compounded them. I can remember in detail the day, moment, and, more importantly, how I was feeling as I posed for the picture.
Our team was the underdog in that tournament. Just about everyone had counted us out. However, despite the low expectations people had of us, we came to every practice believing that we had a chance. As I sat there holding the team trophy for my solo picture, I was thinking how we had persevered and beaten the odds. On a personal level, something also seemed to have fallen into place inside of me. Prior to that tournament, I had never played organized softball. But as the season progressed, I learned the game and became an asset to my team. That championship gave me confidence. It had proven to me that if I really applied myself, I could beat the greatest of odds –perhaps even someday walking through the prison gate a free man. I could feel the smile emanating from deep within my soul as I posed for the picture.
And this is how prison is: long periods of darkness punctuated by moments of light. It’s like holding your breath under water for too long, then breaking the surface just long enough to barely fill your lungs with air before being submerged again. The fear of drowning makes you value the fraction of a second reprieve in a way that those who are safely on land couldn’t even begin to understand.
Contrary to what many people think, prison is not full of angry men who are constantly thinking about the havoc they want to wreak upon the world around them. While there are bad elements, a more accurate general description is men who are desperately seeking to create normal lives for themselves under circumstances that are anything but normal. This explains in large part why nearly every prison is having problems with contraband cellphones.
While getting caught with a cellphone will all but guarantee a longer stay, the feeling of normalcy experienced while talking with family, friends and loved ones back home makes it a risk worth taking for most of the inmates whose families can’t afford the $17 to $26 that it cost to make a fifteen minute call from the payphones. And for those whose families can afford it, there are still restrictions on who can be on the call list. However, while speaking with the people who care about them is a moment of light, it will inevitably be swallowed by darkness because the contraband cellphone will eventually be found. When it is, the inmate is left sinking again.
This is only a small fraction of the dynamics that make up life in prison. It is my hope that you now understand why the question about prison life is not one easily answered; or, rather, doesn’t have an answer that’s easily understood by those who never experienced it. Yet, given the rate of incarceration that’s now increasing among every demographic of our communities due in large part to the opioid epidemic, this knowledge is a necessity.
In order to better position ourselves to support loved ones who will experience prison, those who are returning to our communities, and to strive for effective policy changes and reform, we must understand what the world behind bars is like.
It is my hope that through these columns I will give you a good look inside.
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