A new 3,500 square-foot, 30-foot-high colorful representation of Cong. Danny Davis (7th) adorns the walls of the Safer Foundation building, 808 S. Kedzie Ave. in East Garfield Park. Davis, congressman for the 7th district since 1996, has long advocated for policy changes that benefit justice-involved individuals returning to their communities. This new mural, painted by artist Janel Young and a team of four other artists, honors Davis work making the successful reentry of citizens with arrest and conviction records a national priority.
“I am honored. I am humbled. I am pleased. I’m excited. I’m delighted. And I’m appreciative more than anything else,” Davis told Austin Weekly about being honored by the Safer Foundation.
“Congressman Davis advocated for a bill called Second Chance Act, and that bill has actually generated over a billion dollars in funding for communities all over the United States to help people reentering get their lives back together and become productive members of our community,” Victor Dickson, president and CEO of the Safer Foundation told Austin Weekly News. “So, it’s not just Chicago that’s benefitted, but also people all over the nation.”
The Second Chance Act of 2007 authorizes federal grants for vital programs and systems reforms aimed at improving the reentry process. Since it went into effect, it has benefitted hundreds of grantees who provide training, employment, treatment and counseling to returning citizens across 49 states. The Safer Foundation benefits from those grants.
The mural’s location on the West Side is also representative of the impact of Davis’ work for a community that concentrates high numbers of returning citizens, Dickson said. The University of Illinois in Chicago reported that in 2019 the City of Chicago was home to 35 percent of returning prisoners released from Illinois state prisons, who concentrate in six of the city’s 77 Community Areas, most of them on the West Side. These communities include Austin, North Lawndale, East Garfield Park, West Englewood, Humboldt Park and Englewood.
Davis said, “Because if there can be some symbol of how much this work is needed and if we can inspire motivate, stimulate and activate others to be involved with it and in it and better understand it and help prevent the need for it, then I say to myself, well done.”
Since the beginning of his long political career, Davis, 81, has engaged with returning citizens and institutions working to fulfill their needs and reduce the barriers that prevent them from successfully continuing their lives after spending time in prison or possessing a record.
“We have more of our people incarcerated than any other nation in the world. I mean, we have about 5% of the world’s population, but we have about 20% of the world’s incarcerated population,” Davis said, adding the long-term goal is not only to help returning citizens, but reduce the number of people who are incarcerated.
“We want to reduce recidivism, we want to prevent criminal activity, we want to create for ourselves a safe environment and secure homes,” he said.
As part of Davis advocacy work, he has reduced barriers to employment for individuals with a criminal record. In 2015, Davis worked with the Safer Foundation to convene local health care leaders to identify ways in which individuals with an arrest record could get employed in the health care industry, the fastest growing industry at the time, Dickson said.
“Out of that many of the local hospitals began an initiative to do that and JP Morgan Chase bank funded a Safer Foundation project to produce a tool kit for hiring managers in healthcare that was ultimately distributed all over the country,” he said.
Additionally, Davis has long championed improvements to the health care system and raise awareness on the relationship between public health and public safety.
“Returning residents are disproportionately food insecure, they’re disproportionately homeless and have housing insecurity,” Dickson said. “They’re more likely to have untreated substance use disorders and mental health diagnosis and live in poverty and unemployed.”
“So, when you do the work of reentry, you focus on this population and bring all of the healthcare resources to it, you’re improving public health. When you help them get stable housing and employment, then they’re not gonna commit another crime, so you are improving public safety.”
In addition, Davis sponsored legislation that helped create federally qualified health centers to provide health care in low-income communities. This legislation helped Safer Foundation create the Supportive Reentry Network Collaborative where returning citizens can be connected to health care.
“We know that the most effective program is a J-O-B, a job,” Davis said. “If you can get individuals into the world of work, with the kind of support systems that they need, you can often get recidivism down to virtually none.”