With more than thirty thousand people in prison, Virginia’s Department of Corrections is the most expensive agency in the state. To cut costs and assure public safety, officials need ways to assure that inmates don’t go back to a life of crime when they are released. At Virginia Commonwealth University, one professor is promoting a novel idea – helping inmates to write their way out. Sandy Hausman has that story.
As an associate professor of English, Dave Coogan hadn’t given much thought to criminal behavior until his neighborhood park became a crime scene.
And this particular crime scene was shocking, because it was four teenaged boys who raped a woman and beat up the boyfriend, and the question that came to me was why did they do that?
To find answers, he began teaching classes at the Richmond City Jail. There he came to a surprising conclusion.
"At least half the people who end up incarcerated never really intended to become criminals who intended to hurt people,” he said. “What they’re craving is the embrace of a community that they’ve been estranged from.”
Few understood themselves well enough to connect feelings and ways of thinking with life experience and emotions, but Coogan was convinced that writing could help them to do that.
“I knew how to teach writing, and I knew how writers think," he explains. " I knew that if you raised the stakes higher, the best people will jump over that bar, and they’ll be grateful for the chance to stretch and exercise and leap, and that’s exactly what these men did."
Stanley Craddock, now 52, was one of Coogan’s students – a career criminal who’d been in and out of jail for years – convicted of robbery, breaking and entering, forgeries and resisting arrest.
“I kind of wanted someone like Dave to come into my life to guide me out of my dysfunctional way of thinking," he recalls. " Dave said it would give insight, and I’ve always been a gambling man, on the street and in Atlantic City, and here Dave was telling me to take a chance.”
He began to think deeply about himself and to put his thoughts and feelings on paper. In this essay, for example, he writes about his prison obsession with lifting weights:
"Work call, work call. Doors start flying, men start moving to their assigned spots on the ground, but I’m waiting on rec call. All I want to do is to dash toward a slab of concrete that houses thousands of pounds of cold steel plates – bars that could rip the flesh of the palms of your hands and benches stained with sweat and blood."
It was worth it, he thought, because physical strength and appearance were everything:
"I’m a member of the dumbest dudes club. We’re all the best looking guys in prison, rock hard abs and chests, bulging biceps and legs like tree trunks, but with minds like babies."
To further explain himself, he invites the reader inside:
“You’ll see things that chain me to my childhood. You’ll see the wounds that have been festering for years. You’ll see the prison inside of me. I’ve been released from prison over and over again, but I’ve never really been freed.”
Understanding himself finally brought liberation. He’s been out since 2007.
"When I embraced the possibility of change, I liked it," Craddock says. "It fitted me more. It became my new norm. You know they say the true punishment doesn’t start until you have a change of heart."
Coogan was bowled over by the quality of prisoners’ writing.
“I think of it like somebody crossing a desert. They’re so thirsty," he says. " It’s one thing to walk into a classroom and meet students who are obligated to be there. It’s a whole different thing to walk into a classroom with people who are that thirsty, and they really want any kind word or drop of water. That was a completely transformational experience for me as a teacher. Unless you’ve taught in a jail or prison, I don’t think most teachers are prepared to have a student write that way.”
And he’s now published a book of prisoner essays along with an account of his own experiences working behind bars. It’s called Writing Our Way Out: Memoirs from Jail.
Public discussions with the authors are set for December 2 from 7-8:30 p.m. at St. Paul's Episcopal Church, 815 E. Grace Street in Richmond, and December 3 from 6-8 p.m. at the VCU Barnes and Noble, 1111 W. Broad Street in Richmond.
A longer excerpt from Stanley Craddock's essay:
An excerpt from the essay by Terence Scruggs: