From the outside, the WNP house looks like an abandoned building with its iron bars and the WNP logo spray-painted graffiti-style on the concrete slab front. Inside, it’s surprisingly spacious, tidy and cozy. The walls are filled with posters of inspirational phrases and check-lists of residents’ goals: open a bank account, save money, stay straight and, if relevant, getting custody of their children—a factor that recent studies suggest correlates with decreased recidivism for women.
A team of 32 employees and volunteers help women start over.
“Week 1, they need ID, birth certificate. Week 2, [they need] a resume … I make an outline and then I pull in professionals already doing it,” says Simmons. Or she innovates. For example, To solve a bureaucratic conundrum like a total lack of formal identification, Simmons cut a deal with a local auto plates joint to make IDs if WNP clients bring a signed letter from their parole officer. To help the women gain employment, she personally introduces them to people in the neighborhood.
“Michelle referred me to a daycare down the street,” says 53-year-old Yolanda Fletcher, a graduate who asked to be part of the program though she has never been incarcerated. “She told me to let the lady know that Michelle sent me.”
In the only study done to date specifically evaluating re-entry resources in Philadelphia, Dr. Ram Cnaan of the School of Social Policy and Practice at the University of Pennsylvania says that kind of personal interaction is exactly what’s missing.
In 2008, Cnaan found that re-entry services exist, but hardly any ex-prisoners were able to access them because of a lack of “coordinating hands.”
“To put it simply … there’s no one in the community who knows what services exist, and no one to guide them to those services,” says Cnaan. “When they are released, it’s, ‘Good luck!’”
The missing link in the system is people like Simmons, who picks up the phone, makes visits and leverages hometown contacts on behalf of “her babies.”
Over the years, Simmons has received formal recognition for her work. In 2005, she was Women’s Way’s “Woman of the Year.” In 2009, she was proclaimed a “Local Hero,” by former state Rep. Constance Williams. Tonight, Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Delaware/Montgomery) calls her “a champion” whose work benefits all Pennsylvanians—a far cry from the days when she was only known as her street handle “Philly Cheesesteak,” or “Philly” for short.
Like many WNP clients, Simmons has been in trouble for almost as far back as she can remember. Her first arrest—there’d be 14 in all—was for joyriding in her mother’s car when she was 16. Already drinking and smoking weed in high school, Simmons says “acting the fool” got her kicked out of two public high schools before finally graduating Delaware Valley High School in spring of 1985. She made a half-hearted attempt at Cheyney University but dropped out to party in her Germantown neighborhood of Happy Hollow. “I would hang on every corner in the Hollow, just vacillate from corner to corner,” recalls Simmons.
In 1992, at the age of 24, she gave birth to a baby girl. Two years later, she had another. On June 12, 1994, Simmons left Pennsylvania for Los Angeles. “I was running from the law,” she says. “I was supposed to go to court.”
After two years “running amok” in L.A., social services caught on and sought to take the kids. So she took off again. “I ran back here … and I dropped my kids off with my aunt. She lives in North Philly,” remembers Simmons. “I told her, ‘give me a couple of weeks, maybe six weeks to get myself together … and I’ll be back to get them.” Four years passed before she returned.
Once back in L.A., she was arrested for drug possession and sentenced to 16 months. Following the familiar storyline of addicts everywhere, she burned her bridges. No one visited.
She’d call home to complain she was getting locked up again and they’d say, “Good.”
She’d get out of jail and boomerang right back in.
“I had to do [the time] as they say from the muscle,” she says. Each time she was released, she would call her crew. Dudes with names like Chuckaluck or Marble Joe or Big C.
They always came through for her because they respected her hustle—they knew she’d grind down as low as she needed to go, do whatever it took to pay them. “They’d say, ‘Philly can get her money,’” Simmons recalls.
They’d pick her up from jail. Dope in hand. “I mean we were going down the hill [leaving the prison grounds] getting high,” says Simmons. “It was all I knew.”
Simmons amassed a hustler’s rap sheet. She was arrested for theft by receiving stolen property, forgery, bad checks, criminal conspiracy, prostitution. She served stints in L.A. county jail in ’96, ’98 and ’99. Her nonstop spin through the revolving doors of the criminal justice system is far from unique. Almost half of all offenders who are released back into the streets will wind up back behind bars within three years.
Last April, the Pew Center published the first analysis to outline the problem state by state. “State of Recidivism: The Revolving Door of America’s Prisons,” which defines recidivism as returning to jail within three years of release, found the national recidivism rate to be more than four in 10, 45.4 percent released in 1999 and 43.3 percent of offenders released in 2004.