Rev. Dr. Michelle Simmons, from Happy Hollow in Germantown, was not religious growing up. “I had a concept of God, but no relationship with God,” she explains. A survivor of childhood through adolescent sexual abuse and trauma, she went from addiction to six years of incarceration in Los Angeles, where she’d moved, as she puts it, to “get rich.” It was in prison that she found solace and comfort in religious faith.
Simmons’ faith, and her determination to support herself, to stay out of prison, and to regain custody of her children is the bedrock upon which she founded Why Not Prosper in 2001. The organization has served over 1,000 women since its launch by providing counseling, job skills training, education services, aid in finding safe, affordable housing, and for some, residence at the Why Not Prosper House in Germantown. The goal is to ensure women have the resources needed to abstain from substance abuse, reunite with their children, and stay out of prison. Simmons’s story is the subject of the 2021 documentary, We Are Not Our Mistakes, directed by Jim Tuttle.
Upon her release from prison in 1999, 27-year-old Simmons was told not to return to the friends and family who were still living her former lifestyle. Instead, she found other people of faith to surround her. She landed a telemarketing gig and was clean for eight months when, she says, God spoke to her, delivering a vision of a house for women coming back from prison. She received permission to return to Philadelphia in 2000, began attending a church in Norristown, and shared her vision with the congregation.
“I used to be on crack. I used to be out there in the freezing cold at two in the morning, no shoes on, trying to get a hit. If I can navigate that, I can navigate anything,” Simmons says.
Embarking on this project with no education and no funding while fighting to get her children back was daunting. But, says Simmons, “I used to be on crack. I used to be out there in the freezing cold at two in the morning, no shoes on, trying to get a hit. If I can navigate that, I can navigate anything.”
She went to the public library and checked out books on starting a nonprofit. In 2001, she applied for and received her incorporation papers. Her church donated a building in Germantown, and in 2003, the Why Not Prosper House opened its doors and took in its first resident.
Four years later, Simmons entered Friends International Christian Academy and, in three years was ordained and licensed as a minister. (She would eventually earn her Doctorate in Ministry.) She also attended Chestnut Hill College for her BA in human services and a Master’s in counseling psychology.
The unique challenges women face after prison
According to The Sentencing Project, the number of women incarcerated in the U.S. grew by 700 percent from 1980 to 2019. More than 60 percent of women in state prisons have at least one child under 18.
Once released, the recently incarcerated face many legal and regulatory restrictions. As a result, they struggle to find employment and become disproportionately unhoused. Access to education, business and occupational licensing and other opportunities is limited. These women are often unable to access social services because of criminal records. They also have higher rates of joblessness and unemployment and are more likely to be homeless than formerly incarcerated men. Latino women in prison are least likely to have a high school diploma, followed by Latino men and Black women.
Each year, 1.9 million women are released from federal and state prisons and jails — and 66 percent are rearrested within three years.
These factors increase the odds of violating parole and probation. Each year, 1.9 million women are released from federal and state prisons and jails — and 66 percent are rearrested within three years. Meanwhile, studies show that women in the criminal justice system are more likely than men to have suffered trauma before and during incarceration.
A 2004 Department of Justice study shows that financial support to address short-term needs like housing drastically reduces recidivism. The study also notes, “Welfare policy reforms should provide State-sponsored resources for child care, education, health care, and job training, all of which are factors that contribute to economic marginalization among women in general.”
Faith Bartley is still facing these issues today. She came to Why Not Prosper in October 2017. That’s when, she says, her recovery truly began. “It was a fight for me to want to change,” she says. “It wasn’t until I came to Why Not Prosper that I saw I could be a different individual. Why Not Prosper played an intricate part in my getting sober.”
Bartley is living in a Why Not Prosper independent residence for program graduates waiting for housing. She’s been on a city housing program’s waiting list for three years. “Because of my criminal history, there are a lot of barriers stopping me from getting an apartment,” she explains. “Part of my record is expunged, but not everything. Not working full-time because I’m a student makes it hard trying to save up money. I thank God for Why Not Prosper housing me while I transition.”
How reentry services work
Philadelphia’s Office of Reentry Partnerships (ORP) acts as a hub for reentry services and directs the citywide reentry strategy. Their primary initiative in connecting the recently incarcerated with services and support for reentry is the Philadelphia Reentry Coalition, which comprises over 100 community-based organizations, service providers, researchers, advocates, returning citizens, faith-based groups, and local, state, and federal government agencies, including Why Not Prosper.
The coalition’s collective plan for improving reentry outcomes in Philadelphia, Home For Good, has made progress over the last five years in strengthening the resource network, communication, and collaboration between disparate organizations. A new strategic plan will focus on the findings of its 2019 report: What’s needed is more alignment of efforts, consistent tracking of outcomes and impact, and assessing and closing gaps in services. The coalition believes their foundation of organizations and collaboration makes this objective attainable.
Why Not Prosper is funded through donations and grants and has secured organizational partnerships and state contracts for their work. More than 30 volunteers support the organization monthly. While they employ a spiritual approach to recovery and independence, Simmons makes it clear that beliefs “are not poured into the ladies. They bring their own God in.” That’s how she refers to the women who go through the program, as her “ladies.” They call her “Rev.”
Beginning the reentry process while still incarcerated is more advantageous, as so many tasks and distractions come into play upon release. Why Not Prosper first reaches women who are still incarcerated at Alternative Special Detention (ASD) Central Unit and MOD 3 on State Road, where the group runs workshops on domestic violence, leadership, employment and family unification — mentoring women in preparation for coming home.
There are three Why Not Prosper residences across Germantown for women who lack housing. Medical and mental health needs are addressed first. Some of the conditions women carry with them in and out of prison include AIDS, asthma and depression, so both physical and emotional support is necessary. Once orientation and stabilization are complete, women move to education and employment.
Those who have not earned a high school diploma or GED receive testing to determine their learning needs and are linked with tutors if necessary. With a diploma, women can become certified in food handling, caregiving, basic office skills, or as certified caregivers or home health aides. They receive job search support, training in computer literacy, and financial literacy. There is also a 10-week entrepreneurship program and a graphic arts program.
It generally takes six months to a year for someone to complete all the stages of the program and be considered a graduate. Why Not Prosper also operates as a resource center for ex-offenders living in the community. It is the combination of material and emotional support, with classes and counseling that emphasize both independence and healing, that make recovery successful.
“It’s a lot of work. And the inside work is more important,” says Bartley of her experience. “You can dress up the outside all you want, but the internal work — old, generational issues, toxicity — is hard. It isn’t easy to look at yourself.”
“I thought, What? School at 53 years old? Man, this lady is crazy: I can’t go to school,” Faith Bartley says.
Bartley was nine months clean when, she says, the lightbulb clicked on. She registered at Harcum College through a job fair and graduated in May of 2021 with an Associate’s degree in human services. She is now working on a Bachelor’s from Chestnut Hill College. It was Rev. Simmons who encouraged Bartley to go on to higher education. “I thought, What? School at 53 years old? Man, this lady is crazy: I can’t go to school,” Bartley says. “But, there is something about people seeing the potential that you don’t really see in yourself.”
Filmmaker Jim Tuttle works with Austin, Texas-based technology company Findhelp as part of their storytelling initiative, documenting the organizations Findhelp connects with people in need. He was steered toward Rev. Simmons through a colleague based in Philly and came in the spring of 2021 to shoot We Are Not Our Mistakes.
“I realized early on that she is a really busy person who is very skilled at multitasking,” he says with a chuckle. “I told her what I was hoping to do. She almost immediately put together a list of folks she knew that I should talk to. When we got there, it was a whirlwind. She is just incredible at getting things done. To see her with these women she works with and helped so much, she’s just an incredible person, an inspiration. And her backstory and how she came to create the organization … I love finding someone like that, who’s discovered a cause, and she lives it every day.”
A shift to activism
On the homepage for Why Not Prosper there is a list of 10 women’s names titled, In Memory Of. “Those,” Simmons explains gently, “are graduates of the program who have gone on to the next life.”
Recognizing that many of the problems the recently incarcerated face are systemic, Simmons established Sisters with a Goal (SWAG) in 2020, the advocacy arm of Why Not Prosper. SWAG lobbies for racial justice, restoring voting rights to ex-offenders, and healthcare rights for women, especially while they are in jail. “The SWAG team is on fire; they are a force to be reckoned with,” she says.
During the pandemic, donations tripled Why Not Prosper’s budget, allowing the organization to pivot, as the pandemic also closed in-person access to prisons. Simmons’ group created and distributed resource manuals to incarcerated women, developed a Why Not Prosper Reentry and Recovery Resource App, set up a 24-hour hotline for recently released women, and started publishing Inspire Magazine online to share news and connect other organizations.
“Why Not prosper shined. We excelled and stood up like never before. We stayed open, we received women when they were being released, we made sure they had somewhere to go,” says Simmons.
“But, there is something about people seeing the potential that you don’t really see in yourself,” says Faith Bartley.
They also set aside a room for exposed women to isolate at the house and initiated health and safety measures, including masking, switching to disposable utensils and dishes, and championing vaccines. The volunteer program had to pause, and many residents were not working because of closed businesses. But the house still held cookouts and distributed food to neighbors in need. “We kept moving and stayed on the frontlines,” Simmons says. They had no Covid cases.
Many women stay connected with Why Not Prosper, volunteering as peer mentors or going to work for the organization. On the 20th anniversary of the organization’s founding, 1,274 women had been through the program.
Simmons, who was named to the National Small Business Association Leadership Council in June of 2020, is working on adding a nursing certification program. She has also planned a retreat at Eagle Rock in Hazleton, Pennsylvania, on donated land, and is about to launch a capital campaign to fund construction.
Bartley has her own vision for her future. “My hope, my vision, is to create a nonprofit mentoring formerly incarcerated women,” she says. “I want to build a sisterhood of mentors, to break the cycle of recidivism.”
To Simmons, this is only fitting. “Don’t count out the formerly incarcerated women!” she says. “Don’t judge them. Don’t label them. Their records do not match up with their destiny.”
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Michelle Simmons stands in the doorway of Why Not Prosper’s headquarters in Germantown, the Philadelphia neighborhood where she grew up. She founded the organization 20 years ago to help formerly incarcerated women like herself.