Freed Detroit juvenile lifer gets chance at motherhood

DETROIT (AP) - Kimberly Simmons never had a chance to raise her first daughter.

Sentenced to life in prison for first-degree murder and arson in Detroit more than 30 years ago at age 17, Simmons gave birth in a prison medical unit and immediately handed her baby girl, Ky'Erica, off to her mother.

Simmons would spend 29 years missing every milestone in her child's life, seeing her only during family prison visits.

"I had to realize that mandatory life meant that unless the governor let you go, you die in prison," said Simmons, now 48.

But in 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down laws that allowed mandatory life sentences for juveniles convicted of murder. That meant Simmons had a chance to get out one day. Simmons, who was released from prison in May 2017, is one of 47 juvenile lifers in Michigan to be released since the Supreme Court ruling became retroactive for the state in 2016. Of that group, only two are women.

Her situation is unique, not only is she one of the few female juvenile lifers to be released, she also gave birth to a second child a year later. Now members of the community are striving to support her and her newborn as she faces long odds as a woman re-entering society.

Officials at the Michigan Department of Corrections said a parole board determined that Simmons would not be a threat to the public once released. There also were no letters on record challenging her release, according to the state.

"My words was 'I'm going home and having me a baby,'" she told The Detroit News . "I missed raising my first child, and all I ever wanted to be was a mom."

On July 17, Simmons gave birth to a healthy baby girl named Jai'Marie.

The new baby, Simmons said, offers her a second chance at being a full-time mom. Her first daughter, Ky'Erica, now 29, lives in Kentucky, and Simmons said they have always kept in touch.

Community members are rallying around Simmons, who still needs a permanent home and a job to support herself and Jai'Marie. They are living with her mother in Center Line for the time being.

Earlier this month, the community hosted a baby shower for her at the Horatio Williams Foundation in Detroit.

Nearly 100 people attended the shower, most whom had never met Simmons but wanted to support her, said Dorothy Burston, who organized the baby shower and is helping Simmons adjust to life after prison.

Burston runs Tuff Cookiez, a nonprofit that helps mentor young women.

"I was very happy with the support that we had from people who did show up," Burston said. "If you were there, you felt it and you knew you were part of something that was good."

Being a new mom while transitioning to the community from prison comes with many challenges.

Simmons said there are few resources - such as help with jobs, housing and childcare - for women when they are released from long-term prison stays. Most re-entry programs cater to men, she said.

Simmons was convicted of first-degree murder and arson in July 1988 after her friends threw a Molotov cocktail at a home in Westminster, killing Amy Brown, a 90-year-old woman inside on Feb. 10, 1988. Simmons said the crime was in retaliation against another woman who allegedly slept with the father of her unborn child.

Authorities said the 17-year-old Simmons helped orchestrate the murder even though she wasn't present. Simmons said today she regrets not speaking up and stopping the crime before it "snowballed and got out of hand."

"Hurt people hurt (other) people," said Simmons, who added that she was sexually molested as a child and her mother became disabled by a domestic violence incident. "And I was very broken."

While in prison, Simmons spent time coping with the guilt of her involvement in the crime.

Simmons said there were times when she gave up all hope of ever being released and tried to commit suicide around 1996.

She started receiving counseling in prison and began mentoring younger women who came in with life sentences.

And despite being in prison, Simmons said she wanted to set a better example for Ky'Erica.

"I was able to get directed on a different path," Simmons said. "I came to terms with the fact that maybe one day I will die (in prison). But I get to choose my life and I get to choose who I want to be and how I get to enjoy my life."

Simmons waited four years for the Supreme Court ruling on juvenile lifers to become retroactive for Michigan.

She spent that time dreaming about what she would do once free. She wanted to get on her feet, get married and have another baby.

Simmons was officially released from prison in May 2017 and put on parole for two years. About five months later, Simmons found out she was pregnant, unexpectedly, by a friend. The friend will be part of the baby's life, but the two are not in a serious relationship, she said.

The first doctor Simmons saw didn't believe she could conceive at the age of 47 and told her the symptoms were early menopause.

However, the second doctor took tests and determined she was pregnant.

"It was like the Lord preserved my body the whole time I was in prison," Simmons said.

Simmons' mother, Sharon Simmons, said she is ecstatic about the new baby after grieving for many years about her daughter being in prison.

Sharon Simmons said she took Ky'Erica to visit her mother in prison at least twice a month to ensure they had a mother-daughter relationship.

Still, Sharon Simmons said she knows Kimberly Simmons wanted the full experience of being a mother.

"I just looked at it as a blessing for her, a new life beginning," Sharon Simmons said. "I knew whatever God had in store for her, that it was for her."

Burston said she is looking for permanent housing for Kimberly Simmons and her baby.

Kimberly Simmons has been living with her mother at a senior housing apartment in Center Line but will have to move because the building does not allow babies.

The hard part, Burston said, is that options are limited. Simmons can't go to a shelter because her parole requires a permanent address, there are restrictions for felons who seek government subsidized housing, and Simmons is still looking for a job.

"I put myself in that same situation, and if you've been away that long and you come out into society, there's a lot of obstacles," Burston said. "It doesn't matter if it's a stranger, somebody you know, you should always be trying to give."

Janeen Buck Willison, a researcher from the Washington D.C.-based Urban Institute, a think tank that carries out economic and social policy research, said finding safe, stable housing and employment is a challenge for re-entering prisoners across the country.

Willison said it would be especially difficult for a woman with a child because both the mom and baby need support. And for a working mom, she has to consider affordable child care, Willison said.

Men, on the other hand, usually lean on their child's mother for the baby's care, she said.

"I think the re-entry process in general is difficult," Willison said. "I think there are unique circumstances that women bring to that process that can make it more challenging for them."

Simmons said she is grateful for the support from her family and community after spending so many years behind bars.

Simmons is currently earning money as her mother's housekeeper but said she hopes a full-time employer will give her a chance.

"Right now, I need a village," Simmons said. "For someone who doesn't know you and never met you in day in your life to embrace you and show you genuine love without judgment is priceless. It means everything to me."

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Information from: The Detroit News, http://detnews.com/

An AP Member Exchange shared by The Detroit News.

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