Open Minds: Program provides a sanctuary for jail residents and VCU students alike

A program sponsored by VCU and the Richmond City Sheriff’s Office provides an unexpected sanctuary for jail residents and VCU students alike

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Images from zines produced by jail residents enrolled in a workshop led by Professor Liz Canfield.
David Coogan teaches during an Open Minds session at the Richmond City Jail.
David Coogan teaches during an Open Minds session at the Richmond City Jail.

At the head of a crowded classroom, David Coogan, Ph.D., an English professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, is teaching English 366: Writing and Social Change and leading a lively class discussion on an excerpt of Wayne Booth's 1974 book, “Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent.”

The classroom is located deep inside Richmond City Jail, and Coogan’s students are nine VCU undergraduates and 24 men and women incarcerated at the jail.

Coogan’s course is part of Open Minds, a program sponsored by VCU and the Richmond City Sheriff’s Office that teaches VCU students alongside jail residents in courses on English, religious studies, gender studies, African-American studies and more.

In discussing the “Modern Dogma” excerpt, Coogan’s students consider the differences between resistance and persuasion. He then asks the students to reflect on their own lives and spend a few minutes writing about a time when rhetoric helped defuse a bad situation.

“We’re left with the question today, what do we do in those moments when we’re pushed too far?” Coogan says. “Can you think of a time when you were able to use your words, your argument, your rhetoric to change a situation for the better? Move it away from dogma, violence, negativity?”

One of the incarcerated students, Jamora, writes a poem about how, at the age of 16, her close friend “flipped” one night and began to beat her, and then chased her down with his pit bull when she tried to run away.

When Coogan asks if anyone would like to share what they’d written, Jamora volunteers to read her poem, titled “Safe Deception.”

Late night, rules of curfew ignored.
Teenage rebellion kicks into play.
Oh, how I was not ready for the events that lie ahead.
Young, beautiful, compulsive, manic.
Fearless I felt, invincible I thought.
From teenage years, I gambled with my life.
Through it all, God’s divine protection kept me.
I approached what I believed to be another safe haven.
Little did I know I was fighting a war
That I could not see nor win.
A spiritual battle, it comes as a thief in the night,
As a roaring lion, seeking whom it may devour.
He smiles at me, 10 minutes after midnight
Twenty minutes past, I was fighting for my survival,
Tortured by a vicious beast.
Man’s best friend, trained to attack on command.
Being bitten until the assaults no longer hurt.
Trapped, terror-stricken.
Why, he questions.
Answer me, following thrash after thrash.
No pain, the fear is too great.
Words from a place of subconsciousness,
Not knowing that the words formulated would preserve life.
Natural instincts, survival a must.
Submit, humbleness.
My thoughts begin to flow
When you find the opportunity, take it.
One hour and 20 minutes after midnight,
Opportunity prevails.
Mission accomplished.

Jamora managed to save her life, she tells her classmates, only by verbally placating her attacker.

“I only got out because I said I can’t justify this, so [I tried to] just agree with everything. And that’s what I did,” she says. “And when the opportunity came, and someone called the police, I said ‘Oh, God. I don’t want you to get in trouble.’ And he fell for it, so my mission was accomplished.”

“We’re in these uniforms, but we’re human beings”

Coogan co-founded Open Minds in 2011 with john Dooley, director of the education department of the Richmond City Sheriff’s Office, with the help of a $13,000 grant from VCU’s Division of Community Engagement. Since its creation, the program has provided hundreds of continuing education units to jail residents and generated thousands of service-learning hours for VCU students.

“No faculty or student that I’m aware of has come through this program and not been touched on a profound level,” Coogan said. “This is not just course work, this is life work.”

Coogan has been teaching writing workshops in the jail since 2006, and eventually began connecting VCU students with incarcerated students as part of a course called Prison Literature.

“The question in my mind at the time was: How can the humanities help humans?” Coogan said. “How can the humanities be reinvented for human beings in this life? I had learned that, yes, people can write and change their lives. But, maybe more important than any one particular outcome, was that the process of trying to change was inspiring – because it just cuts to the root of the human condition. What’s possible?”

Liz Canfield
Liz Canfield

In 2009, several other VCU faculty members, including Liz Canfield, a professor in the College of Humanities and Sciences’ Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies, and Jon Waybright, an instructor in the School of World StudiesReligious Studies Program, signed on and began teaching courses at the jail. And shortly thereafter, former VCU professor Iyelle Ichile began teaching an introductory African-American studies course.

“Our idea was that [we would offer] liberal arts courses that only meet at a jail with VCU students and residents of the jail side-by-side, doing the same work,” Coogan said. “We started with English and religious studies in the fall and women’s studies and African-American studies in the spring. And it grew from there.”

When Open Minds formed in 2011, the program taught roughly 40 VCU students and 80 jail residents across the four courses each academic year. Now, the program is reaching more VCU students and incarcerated students, as it has expanded to include a variety of workshops and other classroom activities.

“We now have students who come back as interns and they lead their own workshops. We have graduate students who come in and do their own workshops,” Coogan said. “There’s something going on every day of the week now. I have former students volunteering on Monday, Canfield and Waybright have other students coming in on other days, and we still have the regular classes going on.”

Coogan added that it would be hard to imagine any of the Open Minds activities happening productively without Dooley. “He’s an incredible educator,” Coogan said. “A real humble spirit.”

Seth Croft, a post-master’s degree student in VCU’s School of Education, taught a literature course as part of Open Minds in the fall semester that focused on “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian,” a novel by Sherman Alexie.

“I tried to use the novel as a lens so that they could reflect on their own lives and use that as a window into how we can change our own lives,” Croft said. “The novel’s about somebody who grew up on a reservation, sort of confined in the same way you might be in a jail. He struggles with issues of race, class and addiction – many of the same struggles that people in the jail face.”

Open Minds has continued to expand and grow beyond just courses.

Kristin Reed, Ph.D., an assistant professor in VCU’s Focused Inquiry program of the University College, has been teaching a poetry workshop in the jail over the past year.

Faculty members from the School of Medicine’s International/Inner City/Rural Preceptorship program have offered a session with their medical students that explored “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks,” which raises questions of health and race.

And a recording studio has been set up, led by Canfield and Andrew McGraw, Ph.D., an associate professor of music at the University of Richmond.

Jeremy, an incarcerated student, said the studio has given him a much-needed creative outlet.

“I’ve discovered some things inside myself, some gifts,” he said. “I fell in love with the microphone and it’s a beautiful thing. I’m able to release some things inside of me. People that I lost through tragedy told me I should nurture it. I wish they were here. It’s a part of me that knows that they’re listening.”

Jeremy added that he looks forward to classes with the VCU students and professors.

“I’m in love with this room,” he said. “I wish I could move my bunk in here but that’s against protocol. When I’m in here, I’m free. Personally, we look forward to people that come from the outside.

“We’re in these uniforms, but we’re human beings.”

The transformational power of education

It’s given hope and it’s given education to the residents here.

One of Open Minds’ biggest advocates is Richmond Sheriff C.T. Woody Jr. The program, he said, has made a tremendous difference for many of the jail residents.

“It’s given hope and it’s given education to the residents here,” Woody said. “They just couldn’t believe that here are some VCU students and professors who want to come inside Richmond City Jail and actually take their college courses here and have them involved in it with them.”

The VCU students learn from the incarcerated students, Woody said, while they in turn learn from the Open Minds professors and students.

“Both sides are getting something out of it, inside and outside,” he said. “It’s just been a great situation.”

Woody praised the Open Minds faculty and students for choosing to give something back to those who have been incarcerated.

Open Minds provides the jail residents with a valuable education, as well as confidence and communication skills, Woody said.

“Education cuts down on recidivism, education lets people know what their special talents or gifts really are – literature, poetry, arts,” he said. “[Open Minds] sharpens their minds, it prepares them for the world and shows them how important it is to use their brain and that they can’t let their skills go to waste.”

Lindsay, one of the incarcerated students enrolled in Open Minds classes, took a poetry course taught by Canfield. The experience was life-changing, she said.  

“Liz helped me to know what I want to do with my life. I want to be a poet. That’s all I want to do in my life,” she said. “I spend hours at night dreaming of things I want to write.”

Jim Coleman, Ph.D., dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences, is another proponent of the program. Coleman attended Open Minds’ graduation ceremony in December, and said it epitomized the transformational power of education.

“There is no question that it was the most moving two hours that I’d had for a very long time,” Coleman said. “My guess is that the VCU students, and the Richmond Jail inmates [left the fall] semester with truly new visions for their future and with very different perspectives on who they are as people. It felt like education at its best.”

Coleman said Open Minds is also a reminder of the powerful impact that universities can have when faculty members have a passion and a vision that transcends their heavy workload.

Grant to fund art book, help program grow

For many of us who do Open Minds, it is a full-time gig, a calling into a movement that is larger than ourselves.

This semester, Open Minds was one of 15 recipients of grants from VCU’s Quest Innovation Fund, a pool of funds designed to support innovative pilot initiatives at VCU that help the university realize its strategic plan, Quest for Distinction.

Coogan said the $25,000 grant will fund an art book, showcasing writing and art from Open Minds students, both incarcerated and free; an on-campus capstone event that will bring together the VCU community on prison issues; and an enhancement of the creative workshops Open Minds offers in writing, music and art at the jail. The grant also will help extend the program’s work beyond the jail with nonprofits that work with ex-offenders.

Canfield, the principal author of the grant, said it will have a significant impact on Open Minds’ work and will help the program continue to grow.

“For many of us who do Open Minds, it is a full-time gig, a calling into a movement that is larger than ourselves,” she said. “This grant is amazing because it is the largest grant we’ve received by far but, more importantly, we are in the right place to use it to its fullest potential.”

The art book will feature original poetry, prose and artwork by Open Minds students, Coogan said.

“We were creating all these wonderful pieces of art but part of the goal of Open Minds is to open people’s minds outside the jail as well,” he said. “So to showcase the amazing talent of the people who are there and to showcase the amazing works of art, we wanted to publish it and share it with the outside world.”

Gaining understanding

Sarah King, a freshman VCU student, sits in a desk in Coogan’s Writing and Social Change course. She and her classmates are discussing the Open Minds program and its impact on their lives. The experience, she tells the class, has been “everything I expected and more.”

“The reason I wanted to be a part of this is because I really appreciate dialogue, and I think that it’s really rare that people of different perspectives and from different walks of life can come together and express their ideologies and their ideas and their differing viewpoints on things in a respectful environment,” she says. “That’s exactly what we do in this room. Every time we come in here, it’s just raw.”

King says the frank discussions between the VCU students and incarcerated students have opened her eyes.  

“I feel like I take away more from what you guys share with me, than what I share with you guys,” King says to her incarcerated classmates. “Social change is in the title of this course, and I strongly believe that social change isn’t going to come about until people come together and discuss things and have a forum to speak freely.”

Lindsay replies that the class has given her a better understanding of others, as well.

“To be honest with you, Sarah, you say you get more from me? I get more from ya’ll,” she says. “There was a girl here last Friday and she wrote about her mother and she broke my heart. I went back on my tier and I cried like a baby thinking about how much she and I have in common.

“Ya’ll don’t know it, I might be in an orange uniform, I might be in a high-custody tier, I might be a violent criminal, but baby I’m more like you than you will ever know,” she says.

For her part, Jamora says the Open Minds courses have helped her express her emotions and navigate her way through a difficult situation.

“This has helped me to deal with why I’m here. I’m here for the death of my daughter’s father. A fight broke out. We got to fighting. I grabbed a knife and stabbed. He died. I’m here, second-degree murder,” she says. “This class is how I overcame my grief. This is where I process everything. This is not just a sanctuary. This is a place of emotions.”


For more information on Open Minds, including how VCU students can apply to enroll, go to


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Images from zines produced by jail residents enrolled in a workshop led by Professor Liz Canfield.
Images from zines produced by jail residents enrolled in a workshop led by Professor Liz Canfield.