It’s not easy serving time.
But maybe as hard is getting a job once you’ve gotten out.
Patrick and Sarah Davis know something about that. They both brushed up against the law, did their time and resolved to lead better, more purpose-driven lives.
Now, they run The Fringe Coffee House, a downtown Hamilton cafe that interweaves an appreciation for street art and caffeinated beverages while employing, empowering and supporting ex-convicts living on the fringes of society as they reintegrate into their community.
The couple made it their mission to help those struggling through the re-entry process like they once had. The idea was to turn a tough, maybe even humiliating process into something wonderful.
The pair began by investing their life savings, the proceeds from their recently-sold home and the $20,000 raised by their community and started the project. The decision was a leap of faith, but also one grounded on evidence that programs similar to theirs have been successful. HomeBoy Industries in Los Angeles and Greyston Bakery in New York, for example, hire those with criminal records and give them opportunities to learn new skills.Both have thrived with a lot of community support.
The Davises knew as well, in their hearts, that by investing in true rehabilitation and by believing in their mentees, lives could change for the better.
“We can do it and find out what if, and worst-case scenario, even if we did fail, I could walk back and Sarah could walk back into those prisons with our heads held high and we could tell those people we didn’t just say you were worth investing in, we gave it all,” Patrick said.
Patrick’s tough childhood landed him in juvenile detention at age 16 after a drug deal went terribly wrong. During his time there, his 20-year-old brother died, causing a drastic change in his own outlook on life.
“You can allow the hard things in your life to become … the fuel that destroys everything around you, or it can become the fuel that moves you forward,” Patrick said. “And I realized in that cell a long time ago that the way that I honor my brother’s life is not by destroying my own, it’s by becoming fully alive.”
When he was released, he knew what he was meant to do. He recorded music, traveled around the world and visited Ohio state prisons, sharing his tunes and his story. He wanted to show others hope after incarceration existed and to encourage inmates to contact him upon release if they needed support. Eventually, the visits transformed into the more focused Scars and Bars music therapy program, which still exists today.
Scars and Bars’ focus is rehabilitation. That is, to discuss the root causes of incarceration and encourage members to share their stories and their feelings in an artistic way, be it poetry, rap or a song.
It got bigger
Patrick met Sarah during a program visit in the prison where she was incarcerated after being involved in a DUI fatality. After her release, the two reconnected and Sarah decided she wanted to join Patrick’s cause. They are now married and co-pastor at The Fringe Church in Hamilton.
Many Scars and Bars participants reached out to the Davises after being released, and a great percentage of them encountered the same problem: limited job prospects for somebody with a record.
In light of this recurrent issue and its association with higher rates of recidivism, Patrick and Sarah decided to facilitate the re-entry process by putting everything former inmates could need to get back on their feet in one place: a job, GED classes, post-incarceration counseling and therapy, addiction and recovery meetings and perhaps most importantly, a sense of belonging.
“[These people], they paid their debt to society, they do that and then they’re continually punished and discriminated against for years, and years and years after their crime,” Patrick said. “If people don’t give those opportunities let’s just create our own and start our own businesses, let’s teach these people how to be entrepreneurs.”
They settled on a cafe because they love coffee, and they envisioned a local community hub filled with art and entertainment for all audiences. Apart from a full coffee and pastry menu, The Fringe Coffee House hosts public open mics and trivia nights, live music and recovery meetings.
“I hope more than anything that it’s a sense of family and a support system for them as they’re walking through that difficulty of transition and re-entry,” Sarah said.
And it isn’t just former convicts they offer support to – they also lend a hand to the community’s vulnerable youth before they end up in the system. Children can take free lessons in The Fringe’s music and arts studio and learn to play an instrument, produce music, video edit and make street art, among other activities. The studio, located on the top floor of the house, lets kids’ imaginations run wild.
Coffeehouse employees are hired under one condition: They must show a determination to improve their situation.
Auria Morales remains resolute in her quest for a healthy and happy life. She was released from prison in April after serving 15 years and participating in the Davis’ music therapy program “at least seven times.”
Her job at The Fringe and the network of support it provides have made the re-entry process feel infinitely more manageable. Morales is currently finishing her GED and is setting her sights on becoming an ordained minister.
Adjusting to a new life outside of prison has been difficult, but seeing a portrait of her in the cafe every day serves as a reminder of having two people in her corner.
“It’s so much deeper than just a coffeehouse,” Morales said. “[Patrick and Sarah] have my picture up on the wall, that means a lot to me. It goes to show the type of love that they have.”
And Morales’ chances of success are great. The Davises have found that of all those who reach out to them upon release, close to 90 percent remain out of prison, compared to the national average of 50.
Art matters, too
The vibrant artwork that fills the walls is one of the defining qualities of the house. Patrick, an art lover himself, teamed up with local artists to infuse life into the coffeehouse and create a place where creativity is contagious. The place is decorated with portraits of Salvador Dali and Mac Miller, a Banksy replica of his provocative Paris mural of a Black girl spray painting over a swastika, a comic strip of Patrick and Sarah’s story, inspirational quotes, Bible verses and concert posters from different eras.
Patrick wants the paintings and the murals to represent the variety of interests possible of its clientele and to ignite discussion among them.
“The artwork is meant to be provocative, it’s meant to stir up meaningful conversations,” Patrick said. “We wanted this place to be a place that encouraged diversity … [for] people from all walks of life to come in this building and find something they can identify with and they meet someone different from them.”
The community response to The Fringe, the couple said, has been overwhelmingly positive.
“I think as you raise awareness and put a face to the names of the stories, people begin to fear less and see the person behind the crime,” Sarah said. “And, the community is ultimately safer if people have jobs.”
If all goes according to plan, the Davises will franchise The Fringe and open coffee shops throughout the state, owned and operated by current workers.
“I would ultimately love for us to expand and see one of these in all the major cities, for our employees to eventually be able to own and manage the locations,” Sarah said.
To that end, The Fringe is also working with the Ohio Department of Corrections to offer coffee-making training inside prisons in order to teach the basics to prospective employees before they get out.