Theresa Welch-Davis, assistant director of the South Austin Coalition (SACCC), 342 S. Laramie Ave., had just gotten off the phone with her husband, Ron, minutes before she was asked to speak about the trials and tribulations facing many former inmates.
Ron Davis himself had formerly been incarcerated for drug possession and had phoned his wife to inform her of how his job interview had fared. She seemed pensive yet optimistic following the call.
However, her first words spoke volumes: “They said they are going to get back to him following a background check.”
In that one instant, Theresa perfectly summed up the challenge facing her husband in rebuilding his life after incarceration.
“The prison system has changed a lot between the time I first was incarcerated several years ago and now,” said Ron Davis, who has been free of his criminal past since his release in March of last year.
“At one point about 20 years ago, when a man was incarcerated, he received skilled training in prison,” he said. “There were programs in the culinary arts or carpentry that would at least offer ex-offenders skills that would make them more attractive in the eyes of employers. Now there have been so many cutbacks that many of these programs have been phased out.”
“This forces former inmates to have to make a life for themselves, with no usable skills, and no place to stay, and perhaps even no identification,” he added. “If there was ever a question as to why the recidivism rate in Illinois is 50 percent, this is part of it.”
Davis himself has had difficulty obtaining employment because of his record. He says many former inmates either cannot find work or can find work that pays only some of their monthly expenses.
Nevertheless, after having been incarcerated three times and spending a combined seven years behind bars, Davis said he has moved beyond his criminal past, in part because of an epiphany he had in the final months of his last incarceration.
“I was thinking, ‘Man, I’m getting older, I have two 18-year-old sons. I need to think about the image I am giving them. I have to be concerned about getting out of here and settling down and making a life for them and my two younger sons.”
Last year, when he was released after serving a two-and-a-half-year sentence for drug possession and distribution, the 37-year-old re-entered the life of the one person he knew could help him move away from his criminal past.
“I had always voiced my intention to eventually marry Theresa Welch prior to my last incarceration in 2004. She was a woman who mentored me during the tough times and gave me a clear objective once I was released,” said Davis.
The two met 13 years ago while Ron was involved with the energy assistance program at SACCC.
“I always thought he was a really great person, but at the time, our lifestyles were totally different,” said Welch-Davis. “We never dated prior to his most recent release in March, but I did mentor him with biblical teachings and words of encouragement. I knew he had potential; he just needed to change his life.”
“She believed in me at a time when all I cared about was making money and driving the best cars. I was just spoiled and wanted more,” said Davis, who admits being attracted to the business of “street pharmaceuticals” during his high school years. The promise of easy money and a luxurious lifestyle lured him in.
Conventional wisdom would dictate that the magnetic attraction of street life generally results from a broken home, or young men growing up without father figures or viable educational or recreational options within the community.
However, this was not the case with Ron Davis, who grew up the only child of successful, hard-working and God-fearing parents. His mother was a currency exchange manager. His father owned a Checker Cab franchise.
“I had very good parents who taught me right from wrong and brought me up in a very elite part of Oak Park,” said Davis. “I just did not appreciate what they were trying to teach me at the time.”
After a brief period of dating, Ron and Theresa were married last August. It was a development that some in her extended family questioned although Theressa argued that only her immediate family’s input would impact her decision.
“A few things affected my decision to marry Ron despite his past,” said Welch-Davis. “He worked hard to convince me that he was working toward a new life. Every day he attends a treatment program, and I monitor his progress daily. He has a wonderful relationship with my youngest son who absolutely loves him. And he managed to gain the approval of my mother and my oldest daughter as well.”
Davis adds that despite the struggles he faces finding employment as an ex-offender, it still pales in comparison to the toll his actions have taken on young men and women.
Currently, he does intake for the LIHEAP program, which provides energy assistance through SACCC.
“It feels good to be able to give back to the community through SACCC,” said Davis, who will be celebrating his first anniversary with his wife next week. “It also feels good to be able to go about my daily routine without fear that my actions could lead to more time away from my family.”