Recidivism is a big factor in Pennsylvania’s notorious prison population problem. Currently overpopulated at 116.2 percent capacity as of July, the state is building three more prisons. According to the study, the recidivism rate for Pennsylvania prisoners released between 2004 and 2007 is 39.6 percent, a 3 percent jump over the same analysis of prisoners released in 1999. It’s not a scientific analysis, but Simmons does track graduates for two years. So far, about 59 percent of the women who have completed Simmons’ Why Not Prosper program did not recidivate. Using an average cost estimate of $45,000 per year to incarcerate prisoners, WNP has already generated almost $2.5 million in savings for the state (a figure that assumes each re-offender only goes to jail for one year).
But for Simmons, it’s not about reducing a line item in the state budget. It’s about fulfilling a God-given mission. Ordained as a pastor in 2008, Simmons believes the reason death didn’t open its door when she kept knocking is because God had this plan for her.
Divine intervention came in the form of the LAPD.
The story of her last run, as she calls it, has the well-worn rhythm of a tale that’s been told too many times. It was June 3, 1999. She was partying with girlfriends in a hotel room in L.A. “I had one little hit left … and I was just miserable,” recalls Simmons. “I was like, ‘I want to go home.’ I remember calling [my kids] and they said, ‘Mom, you said you were going to come before the snow,’ and I’d say, ‘I am, I am’ but I just never could pull it together.”
Running out of drugs meant getting more money, which meant selling her body for sex out on the track—but she needed to be high first. “I was sitting on the edge of that bed and I had one last hit and I took it,” says Simmons. She prayed her way through the rush, clutching the Gideon Bible she had found in the night table drawer. “I kept holding [the Bible]. The people in the room were like, ‘You are tripping!’”
“I took the hit and walked out the door. It was raining. I remember this night so clear. When you’re tricking, you look for certain things, like people by themselves. So I saw a white man driving up, I was like, ‘Yo, come here! Come here!’” recalls Simmons. It was a cop. Back in jail, her cellmate told her, “God has you here for a reason.”
After serving two months, she volunteered to go to His Sheltering Arms, a drug treatment house in Compton, where she stayed until July 2000. Group therapy was part of the program. She recalls addicts sharing unspeakable experiences, like the lady who tearfully admitted she sold her young son to a man for drugs. Simmons had a confession of her own. She was raped, in the fifth grade, by an older relative while she was stuck in bed recuperating from an accident. The abuse continued up until the time she left for California.
“He was giving me drugs and money and it was a big secret. I just let it keep on happening for those years,” says Simmons. “I wanted to get high because it was painful and confusing. I was like, ‘What do I do with this?’”
In July, 2000, Simmons was granted her parole request to be transferred to Pennsylvania. When she got back, she immersed herself in the church. Her new family in the church kept her afloat. She even enrolled in New Life Bible Institute missionary training school, attending classes in Ecclesiology and “Spiritual Maturity.”
“I was only back in Pennsylvania for three months when God gave me the vision [to open WNP],” she says. “Right before I got [my kids] back in March I had told the church to pray ... I’d have somewhere to take them,” recalls Simmons. The pastor offered to rent her a house owned by the church. “I went in the house [and] a vision was dropped in me, that this was a house for women on drugs.”
As she began to work on that vision she got her kids—9-year-old Nyfarah and 7-year-old Traynesha—back, secured a job, found her own house through Habitat for Humanity, all while determined to open a transition house.
“I was on fire,” she says. She read library books to learn how to find money in the straight world.
When she started out, she’d help female ex-cons with basics she had just learned to do for herself, like how to get a new ID, apply for housing, write resumes and gain custody of their children again.
Simmons didn’t have an education when she started the program—she’s since earned Allied Addiction Practitioner certification in 2008, a master’s degree in counseling from Chestnut Hill College, and a host of continuing education credits at Drexel University—but Philly proved she could still get her money.
The challenge: God gave her the vision, but not the cash: Rent on the house was $700 a month.
“I said, $700? Where are we going to get that from? So I had another vision.” This time God told her to go meet with the pastors of 25 local churches. “I asked [them], ‘Can you give me $100 every month?’ because God gave me a vision. He gave me a house and the landlord wants $700.”
Simmons convinced 12 churches to agree. It was enough to pay rent and some extras for the first two years.
“Michelle is a social entrepreneur in my opinion,” says Nadira Branch, who says Simmons is like an aunt.
At tonight’s party, donation envelopes are scattered near the flower vases on every table.
Toward the end of the evening, the makeshift graduation ceremony begins. Three women don caps and gowns and slowly march across the floor toward Simmons. Proud family members cry and clap.
First Person Arts Podcast: Proud Mom