A neighborhood matriarch brings love to SCI Greene.
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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