Virginia Commonwealth University

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Professor Helps Prisoners Find Themselves Through Writing

May 6, 2010

By Brittany Daniels
Capital News Service

RICHMOND – David Coogan has been an English professor at Virginia Commonwealth University since 2004. In 2005, he started his Prison Writing Project as a form of outreach to inmates at the Richmond City Jail. Two years later, he began teaching a prison literature class to educate students about the issues revealed in his workshop.

Coogan said the goal of his workshop is to help the men in jail to figure out their own issues and make sense of their lives through writing. Coogan has written a book called The Prison Inside Me, which blends his experiences of working with convicts and their personal writing on certain topics.

He hopes his book and project will “help educate people in the sort of bread-and-butter problems that ex-offenders are facing – everything from finding work to finding peace in your family or your social life to overcoming addiction to overcoming the stigma of a felony conviction.”

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Coogan stays in contact with the men in his book as a friend and a mentor of sorts. Sometimes they contact him for letters for jobs. He invites some of the men to talk to his class about their lives and their writing from the book.

After his writing workshop got underway, Coogan began teaching a class called Social Change and Mobility: Prison Writing.

The course aims to expose students to published work by former and current prisoners in order to reveal social issues. A component of the course requires students to do some level of service work, which could involve going to Richmond City Jail or another facility to teach a writing class, to correspond with a prisoner through letters or simply to volunteer with an organization responsible for prison re-entry services.

Because of his writing workshop, Coogan thought he wasn’t “alone in having misconceptions or just poorly developed conceptions of criminals in prison.” His project, book and class all rub away at misperceptions in different ways.

He hopes to show people the core human connection at the basis of the workshop. He wants people to realize that they can reach out, and should try to.

“We spend so much time separating ourselves from the crimes/prison problem that we need this more connection, but of the right kind,” Coogan said. “And I define that as common ground around all the issues that we tend to share: from childhood to friends and peer pressure to sex and love to basically the life story …

“We have a lot of overlap in our life stories, but we tend not to see it because we are focused on our differences.”

Coogan believes that criminals have offended society and the community. While criminals are responsible for their crimes, the community could reach out and stop the activity, he said. He said that a person who litters and doesn’t care about what the trash does to the environment is the same as a criminal. Neither person has a stake in the community.

“We as a community are better than this. We like to see better,” Coogan said.

The root problem, he said, is “almost like a dangerous word, really; it’s almost hard to say out loud. And that’s love … The root cause of the prison problem is a lack of attention or care. It’s a loveless disregard.”

In the fall of 2009, Coogan asked one of the men from his book, Andre Simpson, to come speak to his class. Simpson came to the class on a Tuesday. By that Saturday, he was dead.

Simpson had been incarcerated in 2005 but was acquitted of all charges after spending four years arguing his case, sometimes by himself. Last December, he and an accomplice were involved in an armed robbery that resulted in a police chase through Church Hill, authorities say. The two men, who were reportedly driving around 80 mph, hit a utility pole and then a tree. Both men died on the scene.

In Coogan’s book, Simpson told parts of his life story, which included his father teaching him how to snort heroin at age 12.

“Instead of him showing me how to read, ride a bike, or the million other things I missed in my childhood, Dad graduated me to the hard knocks of life as a dope-fiend junkie,” Simpson wrote.

An article that ran in a Richmond-area newspaper about Simpson’s death prompted citizens to leave 14 pages of comments. Some of them called VCU students uneducated and Coogan naïve.

“The unfortunate thing is that the students come out of these types of classes handicapped by what they assume is insightful – that is, until they try to write their first corporate newsletter, contract or something that has to be read by the public and then the real waste of the education becomes apparent,” one person wrote.

Other respondents sided with Coogan.

“Thank you, Prof. Coogan, for your compassion, and for your reminder that all of us, even the troublemakers, are human,” one comment said. “Thank you for inviting them in, for listening to their stories, and for encouraging others to do the same. Thank you for being brave enough to meet these men where they are, even when that place is one others hold in disdain.”

Coogan has remained relatively unfazed by the article and the comments. He said he doesn’t like to get mad and stay mad because it’s better to be happy.

“If I weren’t so riled at being raked over the coals of stupidity, I guess I would have chuckled more at all of those ideas,” Coogan said.

“First at the idea that all VCU students are completely innocent and without any harm ever done in their lives, or that they themselves have done. And, second that an ex-offender who I had been working with would come to campus specifically to hurt people. Why would he do that?”

Coogan’s essays about community writing projects have appeared in several journals, including College English, College Composition and Communication, and Community Literacy, and in the books Active Voices and The Public Work of Rhetoric.

For more information, visit Coogan’s website at http://cityprisonwriters.com.


Main Story: For Ex-Cons, Re-entering Society is Daunting