English professor’s new book features memoirs of 10 former inmates of Richmond City Jail

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In a new book, “Writing Our Way Out: Memoirs from Jail,” a Virginia Commonwealth University professor tells his story of teaching prisoners in Richmond City Jail and compiles the memoirs of 10 former jail inmates who describe the conditions, traps and turning points that led to their incarceration.

The book is the creative culmination of a writing workshop at Richmond City Jail taught by David Coogan, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of English in the College of Humanities and Sciences. The workshop, which began in 2006, eventually led to the formation of Open Minds, a program sponsored by the Richmond City Sheriff’s Office and VCU that offers dual enrollment classes for inmates and VCU students at the Richmond City Justice Center, which replaced the Richmond City Jail.

Coogan authored the book and compiled the memoirs written by former Richmond City Jail prisoners Kelvin Belton, Karl Black, Stanley Craddock, Ronald Fountain, Bradley Greene, Tony Martin, Naji Mujahid, Terence Scruggs, Andre Simpson and Dean Turner. Black, Greene and Scruggs joined the project through the mail, writing from prisons in Virginia.

“This is a work of creative nonfiction. It’s my memoir of teaching a writing class to prisoners. And it’s 10 prisoners’ memoirs, written with this hope in mind: that each man might understand the story of his life, and in so doing, change its course,” Coogan writes in the introduction.

Coogan recently discussed “Writing Our Way Out,” which is published by Brandylane Publishers Inc. and is available online and at Chop Suey Books, 2913 W. Cary St., in Richmond. Coogan and the former prisoners will also take part in a book release event at Black Iris Gallery, 321 W. Broad St., from 7 to 9 p.m. on Nov. 19.

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.

What do you hope readers get out reading these 10 former prisoners' stories?

These 10 men — like any 10 people we might assemble — are very different from each other. But they’ve all struggled in life and through incarceration to change. I hope readers see a little of their own struggle in the struggles of ordinary men to do more, to be more in life.

Can you give me an example of one of the memoirs that you feel is particularly illustrative of the book?

Ah, there are so many! But if I had to choose, I’d reach for ones that reveal the pathway into crime and prison. Those are the most painful stories to hear and, ultimately, the ones that promise the most redemption. There’s pain in Stan’s story of being abandoned as a teenager to live in a one-bedroom apartment on Grace Street in the 1980s when, by the way, Grace Street was more about prostitution than Panera. He writes that the walls were painted the color of loneliness. There were no pictures of loved ones or smells of home cooking. He calls it his very first jail cell. This is where he remembers his father feeding him hot dogs at home or at a ballgame. But now he’s alone, abandoned by his father, fixing himself hot dogs. This is where you see him longing for family, to belong. So you can understand why he’s grateful when he meets a prostitute who can teach him how to survive the streets. Someone’s taking the time to look out for him. Decades of addiction and crime and incarceration follow. When I met him in jail in this writing workshop, he realized two things: The lessons he learned from that prostitute hurt him more than they helped him but don’t have to define him anymore. In his writing, he imagines himself back at the ballgame ordering two hot dogs, one for him and one more for that lost boy inside of him. He imagines the reality that he needs. In many ways, all the men do this. They write to discover their freedom.

Can you share a bit about who the contributors are? Are they still in Richmond City Jail? What led to their incarceration? What sort of struggles have they faced?

The contributors are really the most ordinary men. I need to say that because sometimes when people hear “prisoner” or “criminal” they immediately think of glamorous, vainglorious killers and villains.

The contributors are really the most ordinary men. I need to say that because sometimes when people hear “prisoner” or “criminal” they immediately think of glamorous, vainglorious killers and villains. These guys are just wonderful people who years ago sold drugs, used drugs in excess, stole or robbed to get the money to use, and so on. Most were violated, personally, in their families or communities, before they violated the law. That’s very important to understanding their struggles. Naji’s struggle was to overcome significant physical abuse in his family, but also poverty and overwhelming racism in society — three things that fueled his anger, alienation and, ultimately, his addiction. I love that Naji recruited Brad into the project — that he went to the other side of the tracks to find another version of his story. Brad struggled in suburbia with sexual abuse, attention deficit disorder and then addiction. It would be years before he turned himself in to prison after burning every bridge and nearly dying of an overdose. White or black, middle class or poor, they end up in the criminal justice system, which is just awful because the system is not set up to treat a health problem or the underlying issues facing vulnerable children who become hurting adults who become desperate, criminal. These struggles — with poverty, racism, and so on — do not belong to Naji or Brad, of course. They belong to all of us. We need to own the underlying problems that lead to crime if we want to make a better life for everyone.

You've long taught creative writing and other courses in Richmond City Jail as part of Open Minds. What led to the creation of this book?

It’s a story I tell in the book, actually. Originally, we were going to make a little Xeroxed thing for Offender Aid and Restoration, a nonprofit here in Richmond that helps ex-offenders after jail and with whom I had been volunteering. OAR was the group that suggested I volunteer to teach a writing workshop at the jail and finish it at their office downtown in six weeks once the men were released. The men just kept writing, though. Really digging! They couldn’t be contained to six weeks or some folded over, self-published thing. They wanted to make a real book. 

What do the incarcerated men who contributed to this book think about it?

They love it. Toward the end of the book they share how much they valued the experience of writing and building community in the workshop and, hopefully, with publication, greater public awareness of the struggles facing so many people like them. None of us truly knew how long it would take to write a book like this. I recently sat down with one of the men, Ron. We hadn’t seen each other in four years since he moved to Baltimore. And as we’re catching up, talking and smiling, suddenly it hit us. It was nine years ago that we met in a jail! Nine years ago that we committed as a group to making a book. We didn’t know how or when but we knew why. If we believed in each other we could accomplish this.

In what ways do you see the writing of memoirs as rehabilitative for people who are behind bars?

Writing is a way of caring for yourself. It gets you closer to the fire. How did you get to be the way you are? It’s a question that ultimately calls up the memories of others you’ve known, your influences, the memories of meaningful times, your tragic experiences, regrets and real struggles. When I say writing is a way of caring for yourself what I mean is that it can help you care about yourself in relation to other people. Writing feels like a solo experience but it’s ultimately a social act. You write to remember where you came from, socially, in relation to other people and ideas. You write to release yourself to them. It’s a gift, given and received.

Writing feels like a solo experience but it’s ultimately a social act.

Will the contributors receive a share of Writing Our Way Out’s proceeds?

Each author receives royalties equally. I will be donating some of mine to the John Patrick Dooley Open Minds Scholarship fund, which enables exceptional students incarcerated at the Richmond City Justice Center and earning high marks in Open Minds to take additional VCU classes for free upon their release. Anyone interested in donating to this scholarship fund is welcome to contact Bethanie Constant, director of development for VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences at 804-828-4543 or atconstantb@vcu.edu.

You're working on a new book, “Memoirs of Mass Incarceration: The Rhetoric of Revolutionaries, Witnesses, and Survivors.” Can you tell me a bit about it?

Yes, this book tells the story of the prison industrial complex from the point of view of prisoners who wrote through it, around it, and against it. Mass incarceration began in earnest when the radical 1960s came to an end and we began warehousing social problems we could not deal with: racism, but also poverty, drug addiction, homelessness, mental illness, substandard public schooling, violence against children, violence against women, and so much more. Between 1970 and 2010 we went from incarcerating about a half million Americans to over two million Americans, a large many of them nonviolent drug offenders. We went from triaging the violence of legitimate challenges leveled at America by groups like the Black Panthers to taking whole segments of America out of America and into this enormous warehouse. At the same time the genre of memoir began outselling fiction four to one. It’s bizarre. We became fascinated with the life stories of strangers while we began locking up our neighbors. 


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