Bringing Love To Death Row

A neighborhood matriarch brings love to SCI Greene.

By Frank Rubino
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 17 | Posted Feb. 9, 2010

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Peggy Sims brings love to death row.

Convicted baby slayers, lethal arsonists, cop killers and other evildoers—they all languish behind razor wire 330 miles west of Philadelphia at State Correctional Institution (SCI) Greene, home of Pennsylvania’s main death row. It’s a morbid place, currently inhabited by 74 prisoners from Philadelphia and 94 others from around the state. Most people wouldn’t want to spend Valentine’s Day weekend there; but most people aren’t Peggy Sims.

Sims, a 60-year-old West Oak Lane grandmother, will rent a large van and trek to Greene’s death row on Feb. 13. Ten or so fellow Philadelphians who want to share face time (albeit through a screen) with a condemned loved one will ride with her. Incidentally, none of Sims’ loved ones reside on death row. No one in her family is in prison, yet she’s been organizing monthly trips to Greene for the past six years, chartering vans or buses that unite Philadelphians with death row prisoners they care about. Sims makes every trip, often intervening on behalf of visitors who encounter admittance problems with guards.

More than a few people think she’s crazy to go to that kind of trouble for individuals being punished for committing terrible, sometimes ghastly crimes.

“They either say I’m out of my mind, I’m a cuckoo bird, or I’m all about criminals; one of those awful bleeding hearts,” she says from behind her desk at Canaan Baptist Church in Germantown, her hair curled and a silver hoop dangling from each ear, “but I’m not any of those things. I just think every human being is salvageable, and that everybody should be treated like a human being no matter what they’ve done.”

Sims, who retired from Verizon after 30 years, got caught up in prisoners’ tribulations after joining Canaan Baptist a decade ago. She became involved in the church’s prison ministry, which visits city jails and conducts worship services for inmates. There she found out that after being sentenced to state prison, many cons were dispatched to institutions far from Philadelphia. Thus, their family members, particularly the elderly and those who don’t drive, faced logistical challenges if they wanted to visit. She decided to start a nonprofit, Reunification Transportation Services, in 2004, and no matter what people think, has no plans of scrapping it.

“I’m going to keep doing this for as long as I’m able. Maybe I can even change a few hearts and minds.”

Sims knows she faces an uphill battle in changing people’s hearts and minds about death row inmates, who spend 22 hours a day inside their cells and are permitted three weekly showers.

“A minister once told me, ‘you’re talking to the wrong one if you’re looking for some mercy, because I’d pull the lever on them,’” she recalls.

Nonetheless, she has befriended prisoners like 40-year-old Daniel Gwynn, an artist whose oil paintings of President Obama decorate her office. Gwynn has been on Greene’s death row since 1996, the year he was convicted of pouring gasoline and dropping a match into the hallway of a West Philly apartment, igniting a blaze that killed 35-year-old Marsha Smith.

He allegedly told detectives that, high on crack, he torched the place after residents closed a door in his face when he returned to apologize about an earlier argument.

“He was on drugs and can’t remember what happened,” says Sims. “He sends a painting now and then and I send him a few dollars to cover it.”

She’s developed relationships with others on death row, including Junior Black Mafia founder Aaron Jones, sentenced to die for killing a rival in 1990, and Clearfield County native Daniel Crispell, convicted of abducting a woman from a mall and stabbing her to death. Sims acknowledges that some of these men are doubtlessly responsible for committing atrocities, but argues that her faith teaches forgiveness without qualification.

“We can recycle trash and not people?” she asks.

She also points out that in recent years DNA testing has cleared many prisoners of grisly murders they had been sentenced to die for.

“People don’t like to look at that,” she says.

Still, the innocents who touch her heart most are inmates’ family members who’ve been convicted in the court of public opinion.

“They’re treated as if they’ve done the murder,” she says, “People read about it in the paper and pull away from them, both in the workplace and their communities.”

West Philly’s Barbara Roney knows something about that. The mother of Christopher “Cool C” Roney, a rapper convicted of the 1996 shooting of Lauretha Vaird, Philadelphia’s first female police officer slain in the line of duty, says many neighbors shun her and her husband even today.

“People lump you into this category, like you’re not good enough to associate with,” says Roney, who makes 10 or so trips each year to the prison. “I refuse to hold my head down, but we’re convicted of that crime wherever we go.”

Roney also attends the monthly support group meetings Sims set up at the Friends Center on 15th and Cherry streets.

“Peggy is the best thing that ever happened to us,” she says. “I thank God for her every day, because she actually saved my family. The trips are such a blessing. And the meetings … a lot of times I don’t even say anything. I just get a hug that I really need.” ■

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COMMENTS

Comments 1 - 17 of 17
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1. Carmen Rivera said... on Apr 17, 2010 at 02:02PM

“God bless you and may He continue to give you strength, health and courage for what you do. I am in Florida and have a childhood friend on death row at SCI Greene. If you ever can, please write or visit him - Orlando Baez. His family is so far away in Lancaster and do not have the means to visit him. He would certainly appreciate just knowing that someone cares. Thank you.”

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2. Katrina Cartagena-Williams said... on Apr 22, 2010 at 10:16AM

“So a 5 yr old girl and a 2 yr old boy wake up to the actions of your childhood friend--Baez. He rapped, choked, and stabbed over 100 times a woman who just wanted to be his friend. This animal stalked my mother until he snapped. And your his "Pen pal" ??? Who gives you the right to invite people to visit or write him? If anything, it should be his family and you know what...they apparently DON'T! . This is non of your business. If you are a christain woman you would just let him be and let God take care of him. He is only sorry because he got caught...which let me remind you that he acted like it was nothing for 5 yrs after he took my mother's life! You may have good intentions but you should consider writing or visiting hospitals. They have human beings there who do appreciate and respect other human life.”

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3. Eric Smith said... on Apr 22, 2010 at 12:29PM

“So now we feel bad for the criminals? What about the victims that are left behind because of the despicable acts these animals made? I think it's disgusting that anyone would feel pity on them!!”

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4. Anonymous said... on Sep 13, 2010 at 05:59PM

“I have also been friends with Orlando Baez since childhood. There are always 2 sides to every story and Orlando was not there alone. Why is it that he is the only 1 on death row? If you do visit or write, please tell him that there are still people out here that care and love him. Tell him to stay strong mentally and in faith. We will not for forget him and will be praying for him. LOVE YOU CHINO.”

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5. Anonymous said... on Jan 15, 2011 at 12:29AM

“forget Oralando Baez he deserves to have the government take his life just like he took my cousins life... I hope he rots in hell for what he has done... he killed a beatiful woman while her kids were there he is a monster... and even if he wasnt there by hisself he got caught and if he was not guilty why did he asked to be put to death....because the guilt of what he did took over him and he cant deal with it any more he is a coward.... and I hope he suffers....”

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6. Anonymous said... on Mar 9, 2011 at 04:19PM

“Try showing love to the children who lost their mother...their chance to grow up with a mother was ruined! Maybe write them a letter letting them know they are in your prayers. He tried to take the place of God...that is something the devil tried to do and look where he ended.”

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7. Anonymous said... on Aug 31, 2011 at 09:53PM

“Lady i want you to face this fact. You are sick. If one of these MONSTERS killed your child and i quit reading because i was getting sick, but i assume you have no children. Lets say they did and raped and strangled and beheaded your child. Your going to forgive? get out of here. I am a devout christian and Jesus taught me better than what you are doing dumbass. Torture maim and beat these wastes”

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8. Anonymous said... on Sep 6, 2011 at 05:01AM

“Remember, the criminals have families too...and courts do make mistakes. Thank you, Ms. Simms, for being kind to those in need.”

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9. Isael Cartagena said... on Sep 7, 2011 at 08:24AM

“I love and miss my mom more and more everyday. Thank you to the people who realize what we go thru and have to live with everyday. RIP JANICE "SISSY" WILLIAMS”

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10. Anonymous said... on Jan 6, 2013 at 05:07AM

“shoutout to the death row dudes lil donnie,aj,cool c,mumia,rasheen simpson,and many more its still major love out here on these streets for yall...forget what everybody say we got hood love for yall...straight like that...”

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11. Anonymous said... on Mar 22, 2013 at 02:11PM

“I know its hard to feel for these individuals BUT please understand that these individuals have loved ones who have fond memoiries of them of innocent times....Is an action so horrible that it can never be forgiven???
I know its hard to mask your pain BUT try not to judge...we are all one emotional moment away from doing something horrible....do not judge try to understand....bad actions (no matter how bad) does not always make you a bad person....hate in your heart will consume you too....ONE”

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12. andre said... on Jun 14, 2013 at 02:05PM

“Thank you for the Christian work that you do. I agree that there is no soul that cannot be redeemed. And, of course, I understand the anger of those who have suffered the loss of friends and family. But your work is not to judge but rather to continue to witness to the love of God. I am gladdened to hear that Daniel's paintings hang in your office. I thought his piece 'the power of prayer' does belong in a Church. Lastly that must be some terrific Baptist Church that gives support to your work- God bless them!
Rev Andre Scott Fisher B.A.(Theol) -England”

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13. Anonymous said... on Sep 3, 2013 at 09:22AM

“Yall are some sick fucks who in there right mind would really think the shit this lady is doing is ok wtf I dont care , this bitch is nuts and you crazy ppl think in doin this she is doing gods work no god did his work when he saw this sick man was put in jail and I hope put to death , you ppl need to wake up your all fucking crazy that man did not care that he took that womans life leaving her two small children there to see that smh you ppl disgust me !!!!”

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14. TW said... on Dec 19, 2013 at 06:10PM

“Fuck you bitch. I hope you take your friend with you too hell. Gods work will be done but not by your hands. Your reaching out to a person who is sick, careless, numb and a menace to society. I couldn't understand how. Your sleeping at night and if so may you have nightmares. How about your care for the real victims like her daughter and son. Your work is the work of the devil giving your praise to a demon. I hope God has mercy on your soul. And I hope God bounds Orlando Baez to the deepest depths of hell. Remember GOD DON'T LIKE UGLY AND THA'LL SHALL NOT KILL. YOU REMEMBER THAT WHEN YOU SAY PRAYERS.

R.I.P. Aunt Sissy (Janice Williams)”

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15. Anonymous said... on Apr 3, 2014 at 10:02PM

“People who's loved ones have been murdered have a right to vent and not like what this woman is doing but if the person convicted actually did the crime gets executed they have paid the price and unless that person is a totally evil serial killer and he or she has killed only this one time and they have shown remorse then they should be forgiven once they are executed and paid the ultimate price for their crime.”

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16. Katrina Cartagena-Williams said... on Sep 17, 2014 at 03:51PM

“Basically, all my life, I try to work on forgiveness. I am a Christian woman but also very human. It is a roller coaster ride for me still. I only had 5 years with my mother and only remember a handful of moments...i am grateful but the memories are starting to fade. I don't have many pictures either bc they were ruined by blood. Another thing I work on that goes along with forgiveness is anger. I am angry because I have two wonderful children who got ripped off... Not by GOD but by someone who thought they had power like GOD.”

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17. Anonymous said... on Sep 18, 2014 at 01:26PM

“And you notice the ones claiming to be Christians (one even said "devout") but still cannot forgive (or even type a sentence without cursing the innocent woman doing the charity). Sad! Plenty of family members go in Courthouses daily and tell their son or daughters killer that they forgive. Surely someone detached from the crime can do the same. But to have hatred for someone doing good for other's and never did a bad or wrong thing to you means you are warped! Mentally Toast! And to consider yourself a devout Christian all while doing so means you have an anger issue and do not know what it means to be a Christian. Also, grow up! Christians strive to be like Jesus who even forgave his own killers to their faces. Guess being a part time Christian with mental defects is moreso where you are at in life.”

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