'Writing Our Way Out' Class Keeps Offenders out of Jail
Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia is in partnership with Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney to keep low-level offenders out of jail. Instead of spending time in a jail cell, they can spend time in a writing class at the college.
Writing Your Way Out is a class that involves reading, writing, and self-reflection by the participants who read, write and share stories of their lives. They support one another and listen to their experience related to their differences as well as their similarities involving race relations, class, gender, sexual orientation, addiction and their experience in the criminal justice system.
The new program was launched on January 16, 2018 at the beginning of the second semester at VCU. So far, the writing class is going well, according to Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael N. Herring and Dr. David Coogan, a VCU associate professor of English and organizer of the program.
Dr. Coogan teaches courses in writing and literature. He is the founder and co-director of Open Minds, www.openminds.vcu.edu, a program that enables college students to take courses with men and women incarcerated at the Richmond City Justice Center that used to be called the Richmond City Jail.
Dr. Coogan is bringing the course to the VCU campus. He has the support of the university and the city’s prosecutor.
About the Writing Class
The writing class is part of the English curriculum that is made up of 10 people facing jail time for nonviolent crimes and 10 college students. The 20 students are enrolled for two different reasons.
The 10 offenders get to stay out of jail while the 10 students get college credit in "English 366: Writing and Social Change: Prison Writing.”
Dr. David Coogan knows that the course is beneficial because he has been teaching it since 2011 at the Richmond Justice Center as part of the Open Minds program. He founded the program with support from Richmond Sheriff C.T. Woody Jr.
Purpose of the Program
According to the founder, the goal of the program is two-fold:
- It helps offenders to figure out a way to live a better life that will keep them out of the criminal justice system. Their lives will be one they can be proud of.
- It helps the VCU students to discover that they have things in common with the offenders.
Dr. Coogan states that even though some people are incarcerated and some are free, everybody is struggling with something. It could be a life of trauma or poverty or something else.
Through the course, participants learn how to respect one another in their very diverse struggles.
How to Get Into the Program
In order to enroll in the writing program, participates must be low-level offenders only. Participants who have committed a sex crime, a violent felony, or burglary are not eligible to attend.
All the participants must be able to read and write. After all, it is a writing class.
Supporters of the Program
Many Richmond city officials support the program including the Commonwealth Attorney Mike Herring who describes the professor as one who has created a unique program that is rewarding for the offenders and the students.
Dr. Coogan has classroom help by two coaches, Dean Turner and Kelvin Belton. These two men were incarcerated at the Richmond City Jail in 2006. They are co-authors of Dr. Coogan's book, “Writing Our Way Out: Memoirs from Jail” that was published in October 2015 and is available on Amazon. In the 258-page book, Turner and Belton described their transformation and shared information about their experience while in and out of jail.
Those who have bought and read the book say David Coogan has gathered enough evidence to prove that everyone has a story to tell and a contribution to make to society when given the chance. Each one of us is connected to others, and it benefits us all when we respect one another no matter what has happened in our past.
About Dr. David Coogan
Dr. David Coogan has been teaching writing workshops at the Richmond City Jail (RCJ) since 2006. The work has been supported by the College of Humanities and Sciences through its Student Engagement Program and the Career Enhancement Scholarships.
What Dr. Coogan is doing has been received favorable recognition. He earned VCU’s 40 Acts of Caring Award. His project was spotlighted in VCU’s application to the President’s Commission on Higher Education Community Engagement Honor Roll.
The writing project has touched the lives of over five dozen inmates and hundreds of VCU students who have enrolled in "English 366: Writing and Social Change: Prison Writing." Coogan is the author of many books and papers.