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VCU, Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney partner to divert 10 low-level offenders from jail to a VCU classroom

A new program, Writing Your Way Out, will offer low-level offenders and VCU students a transformational educational experience involving reading, writing and self-reflection.

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Writing and Social Change will be taught by David Coogan, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of English in the College of Humanities and Sciences, who has taught the class in the Richmond City Justice Center to jail residents and VCU students since 2011.

Instead of serving sentences in jail, 10 low-level offenders from Richmond will be diverted to Virginia Commonwealth University where they will take the course English 366: Writing and Social Change this spring semester alongside 10 VCU students.

At VCU, the low-level offenders will be taking part in a new program called Writing Your Way Out: A Criminal Justice Diversion Program, which is a partnership between VCU, VCU’s College of Humanities and Sciences and Richmond’s Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney.

Writing and Social Change is a service-learning course that has been taught since 2011 at the Richmond City Justice Center as part of Open Minds, a program founded by David Coogan, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of English in the College of Humanities and Sciences. In Open Minds, jail residents and VCU students come together to read and write about literature, share the stories of their lives, support one another, and contend with the diversity of experiences tied to race, class, generation, gender, sexual orientation, addiction and the criminal justice system.

The Writing Your Way Out program will bring that same model to VCU’s campus, providing both the offenders and VCU students with a transformational experience.

“I hope that this program helps [the offenders] figure out a way to live a better life, a life that keeps them out of the criminal justice system, a life in which they’re proud of what they’re doing, where they’ve discovered a new life purpose or just kind of figured out those self-sabotaging behaviors that create a lot of pain in their own life and in the lives of others,” Coogan said.

For the VCU students, the course will show that although their lives might seem far removed from those who are or have been in jail, they have much more in common with one another than they might at first realize.

“Though some are incarcerated and some are free, we’re all struggling with something. It could be a history of trauma or poverty,” Coogan said. “And then all the other differences that seem like a problem or seem like they could divide us — it could be race, it could be gender, it could be orientation. And these are subject to this collaborative inquiry. People realize how to respect one another in their very diverse struggles.”

Each of the diverted participants will be mentored in the class by two coaches, Dean Turner and Kelvin Belton, who participated in a similar course with Coogan while they were incarcerated at the Richmond City Jail in 2006. Turner and Belton later became co-authors with Coogan of “Writing Our Way Out: Memoirs from Jail” (Brandylane Books, 2015).

Dean Turner, left, participated in a similar course with Coogan while he was incarcerated at the Richmond City Jail in 2006. He was among the co-authors with Coogan of “Writing Our Way Out: Memoirs from Jail” and will serve as a coach for the Writing Your Way Out program.
Dean Turner, left, participated in a similar course with Coogan while he was incarcerated at the Richmond City Jail in 2006. He was among the co-authors with Coogan of “Writing Our Way Out: Memoirs from Jail” and will serve as a coach for the Writing Your Way Out program.

“Professor Coogan’s model illuminates the complexity of an offender’s behavior, making it harder for a rush to judgment,” said Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael N. Herring. “For participants, it offers something that traditional prosecution trajectories do not — introspection and hope.”

For participants, it offers something that traditional prosecution trajectories do not — introspection and hope.

Writing Your Way Out will accept only low-level offenders who can demonstrate their motivation to break the cycle of crime in their lives and who have a facility with writing and reading. No person shall be eligible for the program if he or she has previously been convicted of a sex offense, any violent felony involving a crime against a person, or any form of burglary.

All participants will follow a code of conduct created for the program. Violations by diverted participants will be referred to the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office. The VCU Police Department will be available on call for immediate assistance and maintenance of a successful classroom environment but will not be present inside the classroom. VCU retains the right to exclude any person from Writing Your Way Out at any time.

VCU Police Chief John Venuti said he and his department support Writing Your Way Out and that it will be a benefit to the community.

“I have found that people often learn more from being given a second chance rather than an actual consequence,” Venuti said. “In the appropriate situations, this program allows select offenders to get that second chance.”

Writing Your Way Out will require no new funds or resources, and will in fact save the Virginia taxpayers’ money by reducing court costs and eliminating the cost of incarceration. The three-credit course will be part of Coogan’s regular teaching load in the Department of English. VCU students will take the class for credit, while the diverted participants will participate as part of a plea agreement.

The cost of the diverted participants’ course materials — including notebooks, pencils and copies of “Writing Our Way Out” — will be minimal, and covered within existing budget allocations from the College of Humanities and Sciences. The two program coaches are not paid VCU employees, but will be paid with funds raised by the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office.

“The College of Humanities and Sciences is very proud to partner with Richmond’s Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney in promoting responsible citizenship behavior and rehabilitation for low-level offenders through a writing diversion program,” said Montserrat Fuentes, Ph.D., dean of the College of Humanities and Sciences. “As a college, we are committed to make a difference on the lives of our community members while offering a transformative educational experience to our students.

“This diversion program promotes writing and literature for self-reflection as a means to prevent and reduce recidivism, while offering a unique experiential learning and training opportunity to VCU students in class with diverted participants. An education might be the answer to provide treatment and foster changes in thinking that will address low-level offenses and promote responsible citizenship. As an urban university, it is our mission to make a positive impact on our community and we value faculty members, such as David Coogan, who bring to life initiatives that make that possible.”

Roughly half of the diverted participants for Writing Your Way Out have been selected so far, organizers said.

“We’re working with the public defender’s office and a judge so they’re all aware of the program,” Coogan said. “Collaboratively among these three offices — the judge, the public defender and the prosecutor — everyone is thinking about who would be best positioned to take advantage of this opportunity, who really wants to change, as opposed to, ‘You’re being sentenced to VCU.’”

 

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