PUBLISHED: July 20, 2022 at 3:32 a.m. | UPDATED: July 20, 2022 at 8:39 a.m.
At 14 years old, Andre Simms was encouraged to fight others at the Lima juvenile detention center. Now, at 26-years-old, he’s joined others advocating to end that system to embrace another path to reduce recidivism.
Simms was among those approaching the Delaware County Board of Managers of Juvenile Detention as part of the Care, Not Control campaign, calling for the managers to reject reopening or rebuilding the juvenile detention facility in favor of investing in community-based alternatives.
“I feel like kids don’t need to be put in cages,” Simms said. “They need resources. What we need is care. What we need is outlets for our creativity, for our energy. My goal is to refocus the conversation on proactive solutions instead of just reactive.”
Kareen Preble of Care, Not Control said it costs an average $211,000 a year to incarcerate a child compared to the average $16,000 a year to educate one.
Delaware County’s juvenile detention system is in flux. The 60-bed county center in Lima lost its state license and was closed by Delaware County Court of Common Pleas President Judge Kevin F. Kelly in March 2021 following allegations of physical, sexual and psychological abuse brought by Delaware County Public Defender Chris Welsh and First Assistant Public Defender Lee Awbrey.
Since then, Delaware County has partnered with Montgomery and Bucks counties and Abraxas in Morgantown, Berks County but these facilities have the right to refuse Delaware County youth, resulting in them being released back into the community.
Two weeks ago, Delaware County Council approved a request for proposal to hire a consultant to evaluate juvenile delinquent services. They would determine what would be best – renovating the existing juvenile detention facility; demolishing it and rebuilding on the Lima site; renovating the Lima building and constructing and addition; or identifying another county-owned campus and renovating that for this purpose.
Simms joined the Care, Not Control advocates in telling the Juvenile Detention Board of Managers to reject reopening or rebuilding a new juvenile detention center.
“We have to redefine the way we react and the perspectives that we adopt when we’re dealing with these types of issues,” he explained.
He said people need to be taught how to deal with emotions and how to be comfortable with being uncomfortable and that creative outlets are necessary and very much needed.
Simms was 14 years old when he entered the Lima Juvenile Detention Center. He said he was there for two to three months.
“I was in a fight with my brother,” he said. “I got into a fist fight with my brother. While I was there, I didn’t have access … to call my family. I didn’t really have the ability to speak with my brother.”
Simms spoke about what it was like inside the facility at the time.
“While I was at Lima, I was encouraged to fight a lot by kids, by staff,” he said. “There would be rewards.”
Simms said the stories of inappropriate interactions with the staff were widespread.
“That all led to me wanting to get out as soon as possible,” he said, adding that his public defender attorney told him if he pleaded guilty to aggravated assault and didn’t get into trouble, his record would be cleared.
“I (pleaded) guilty,” he said. “I thought that was a good idea at the time. I didn’t get a chance to talk to my mom … That’s how bad I wanted to get out. That’s no place for kids.”
He added, “personally, I feel if I was a different complexion, I would never have got a felony for a fight with my brother … The consequences really altered my path.”
After his plea, he was subject to extensive probation.
“It’s juvenile probation but I have a probation officer that’s coming into school,” Simms said. “I have a probation officer that is checking on me at work. I am under surveillance, like I’m under a microscope, 24/7.”
At 17-years-old, Simms was charged as an adult with attempted murder and spent about eight to nine months at the George W. Hill Correctional Facility. Of that time at the county prison, he said he spent approximately six months on the juvenile block, which is directly across from the high security block with those with mental health issues.
After pleading guilty to the charges, he spent eight years in various state prisons, including Camp Hill and Graterford. He re-entered society on July 7, 2021.
“Even during my incarceration, I was involved with organizations like the Prison Literacy Project, helping people getting GEDs and tutoring,” he said. “I wanted to use my time effectively to change and be part of the solution, instead of being part of the problem.”
Also while in prison, he saw what didn’t work.
“I did eight years,” Simms said. “I saw people come back over eight times. It’s literally a revolving door. The solution is rehabilitating people.”
He stressed the need for emotional intelligence training and restorative justice modules, particularly those that allow young people from poverty to work and creatively express themselves and assume leadership positions.
Since serving his time, Simms has become Lead Youth Organizer for the Youth Art & Self Empowerment Project (YASP) facilitating art and poetry workshops in Philadelphia jails and is a hip-hop artist known as DayOneNotDayTwo.
He is also involved in the Care, Not Control campaign, spearheaded by four organizations, as they work to end youth incarceration in Pennsylvania. In addition to YASP, the other groups involved are the Juvenile Law Center, The Village of Arts & Humanities and Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project (YSRP).
As part of that, he attended the Board of Managers meeting.
“I think it’s important when we’re talking about youth justice, when we’re talking about creating solutions for young people that we involve young people in the conversations,” he said. I think it’s important that people who are directly impacted, that their perspective gets heard.”
For more information about the campaign, visit www.carenotcontrol.com.