Debbie Sims Africa is now 62 years old, living with her 39 year-old son who was born in prison, trying to figure out how a cell phone works, and walking with an electronic monitor locked to her ankle.
After nearly four decades, the first of the MOVE Nine – members of a radical political group convicted of killing police officer James Ramp in a shootout in Philadelphia’s Powelton Village neighborhood in 1978 – has been released from prison. In addition to killing officer Ramp, police and firefighters were injured in the shootout.
Africa was first eligible for release in 2008, and she has come before the parole board eight times since them. In May, she and MOVE members Janine Africa and Janet Africa faced the board, but only Debbie was granted parole.
“I still don’t think I’ve caught up with my emotions,” she said, three days after leaving the State Correctional Institute Cambridge Springs. “The fact that I left prison and my sisters Janine and Janet didn’t — we came in on the same charges, we were arraigned the same, but when it came time to get out of prison, they didn’t do that the same. It’s a bittersweet victory for me.”
Two of the original MOVE Nine have died in prison. The other six still remain behind bars.
“I’m going to definitely spend a lot of time with me family, but I’m going to still advocate for my family still in prison,” said Africa sitting with her son, Mike Africa Jr., and her granddaughter, Alia, at a press conference.
“Janine and Janet are still there. Walking out those doors without them was really, really, really hard,” she said. “My husband is still in prison. He comes up in September. A portion of my life is going to be dedicated to that.”
The deadly 1978 standoff that led to conviction of the MOVE Nine was a precursor to the infamous 1985 bombing on Osage Avenue in West Philadelphia, when police dropped an incendiary device on top of the house where MOVE members had fortified themselves. The resulting conflagration consumed 65 houses — decimating the entire neighborhood while killing six adults and five children inside the house.
Two of those killed were children of Janine Africa and Janet Africa. They were in prison when it happened.
“We didn’t believe it when the officers came to tell us,” Debbie recalled. “It was devastating. I don’t think that I really let out all my feelings from that. We weren’t there in a physical manner. It was incredible.”
Debbie Africa, who was pregnant when she went to prison, said there were many hardships. But none was as crushing as having her newborn son, Mike Africa Jr., taken away from her.
“The hardest thing was when the prison was directed to take me to a hospital so they could take him away after three days,” she said, weeping. “There are no words to describe it. Feeling that emptiness.”
The attorney representing all three women, Brad Thomson with the Chicago-based People’s Law Office, said none has gotten into trouble inside prison in many years. They conducted themselves as role models for other prisoners seeking self-improvement, he said.
Before the parole hearing in May, the office of Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner sent letters to the board in support of releasing Debbie, Janine, and Janet Africa.
“It was our determination that, after 39 years of incarceration, their parole did not pose a threat to public safety,” wrote a spokesman for the district attorney in an email.
Nevertheless, only Debbie Africa was released. Thomson said the parole board gave “boilerplate” reasons for denying Janet and Janine, including denying the circumstances of their offense and a lack of remorse.
He said the parole denials are political.
“Their records are remarkably similar,” said Thomson. “None have had any disciplinary infractions in decades. It’s hard to understand the rationale or the justification.”
MOVE is still an active political organization, although not as visible as it once was. Mike Africa Jr. would not say how many members there are, but he did say the group is dedicated to environmental issues, such as opposing industries involved in natural gas fracking and the Dakota Access Pipeline.
Mike Africa’s father, Mike Africa Sr., is incarcerated at Graterford and will face the parole board in September. Other members will follow shortly thereafter, while Janine and Janet will have another chance next May.
Thomson is encouraged by the release of Debbie Africa. “It’s a big step toward releasing the MOVE Nine,” he said.