Interview: David Coogan (Writing Our Way Out: Memoirs from Jail)

David Coogan by Skip Rowland

David Coogan is the author—with Kelvin Belton, Karl Black, Stanley Craddock, Ronald Fountain, Bradley Greene, Tony Martin, Naji Mujahid, Terence Scruggs, Andre Simpson, and Dean Turner—of Writing Our Way Out: Memoirs from Jail, as well as co-director of Open Minds, a college program sponsored by the Richmond City Sheriff’s Office and Virginia Commonwealth University, offering dual enrollment classes held at the Richmond City Jail that are open to college students and prisoners.

After a young woman in his community was raped, David reflected on society’s responses to crime; incarceration certainly didn’t seem to be solving the problem. “What comes after the anger?” he writes in the book. “We punish people and nothing really changes. The crime is thoughtless. The punishment is thoughtless. Society becomes thoughtless.”

David decided that there had to be a better way. He has been running creative writing workshops at the Richmond City Jail since 2006. Writing Our Way Out is a product of his first workshop.

Jimmy Cloutier: How did you first get interested in working with incarcerated men and women?

David Coogan: After I was confronted with a crime in my community (Churchill) in Richmond, Virginia, I was compelled, in a way that I had never been compelled before, to understand why these boys had done what they had done. Four teenagers (high school dropouts, more or less) raped a young [eighteen-year-old] woman and beat the boyfriend. As you might expect, the community was shocked and angered, and they wanted justice. Until they interviewed the woman who had been raped, I hadn’t really articulated what it was that I wanted. I didn’t want to see the boys incarcerated. She didn’t seem to want that either. She asked this question: “Why would they do this, why would they ruin their lives?” And I thought, “That’s exactly the question [that needs to be asked].”

I’d been volunteering with OAR [Offender, Aid, and Restoration—now, Opportunity, Alliance, Re-entry—a nonprofit that provides life-skills classes and counseling to ex-offenders], and that’s when I realized that I can put these two things together; I can bring questions of how you got to be the way that you are and how you might change—I can bring those questions into the jail. And with my skills as a writing teacher, I can help incarcerated men and women work through those questions. That’s how I got in—I was mostly trying to figure out if I can help people improve. And I was trying to figure out if the teaching of writing can be useful.

I’d been doing a lot research in rhetoric and social change, and I was realizing that we always say that rhetoric connects us to democracy. Rhetoric and democracy were sort of born together at the same time in ancient Greece over two millennia ago, and a lot of us who teach writing draw inspiration from that. Once you teach people how to argue, once you teach them to be persuasive, they can speak up for themselves in a democracy. Unfortunately, mass incarceration exiles millions of people from the democracy, so I was looking for a way to help people, at a personal level, build a community and, through publication, help people in the greater community recognize that ordinary citizens who have been exiled from our community can and should speak up for themselves to teach us about our shared fate in this democracy.

JC: So, is the teaching of writing useful?

DC: Yes.

The hunger for healing is so great amongst people who have been neglected socially, psychologically, and ethically for so long that you’re basically looking at people who are famished, and they need to eat—right now. The urgency with which they received this task really impressed me. I’m used to college students, who are interested only half of the time, but these are adults in jail, and they’re not getting a degree, and they’re not getting grades. They just want to change their lives, and I’m saying, “Well, here’s a way you might be able to.”

So, yes, you can teach—to answer your question more directly—you can teach people to figure out their life story and to gain insight as to why they made certain choices or as to why they were blocked by this structure in society. But you can’t change institutions with a writing workshop. You can’t change the institutional reality of government, of prisons, of schools. [These men’s] lives are on the balance, and it’s because our institutions have created more opportunity for some people than others. To teach them how to recognize where they are in life and what their problems might be is useful because they can then start to make better choices. But what’s tragic is that they are still often blocked from succeeding.

JC: Were there disappointments?

DC: Oh, all the time.

JC: How do you overcome those disappointments? How do you encourage greater student input? How do you keep people motivated?

DC: I think the best way is through the supportive community. I think too often we individualize education. We’ve got this culture of individuality, of the self-made man; you either earn your own way in life, or you don’t earn it at all. It’s up to you: the individual. I think the problem is that we forget that successful individuals, maybe a third of what makes them successful comes from their own talent or genius or ambition—but I’m going to say two thirds of it comes from the community that supported them.

You’re always going to find heroic individuals who overcome circumstances, but do you think Shaka Senghor developed his newfound compassion and ability to heal himself and to survive the crack epidemic and to survive mass incarceration and to become an activist who would challenge those things—do you think he did all of this on his own? No. He wrote letters to his family. They wrote back. He had volunteers coming into the prison to help him. When he got out, he was mentored again by professors and others in the community. And he spoke back to them and said, “You know, that’s fine, but you can do it this way, too.” And they formed a community. And that’s the same thing that I’ve done.

I’m always inspired reading the stories of people like Shaka or Jimmy [Santiago] Baca. Look closely at how they got to be the way they are; you’re always going to find community. You’re always going to find at least one other person in there. And, most times, people benefit from an inclusive or diverse community. I’ve always found the more diverse and inclusive the teaching environment, the better, the reason being that you have more opportunities to find common ground because people will approach a problem from different angles.

JC: Is that why you bring students (through Open Minds) into the jail as well? 

DC: That’s exactly why.

Going back to that individual versus community model of education—I started teaching at the jail as one individual amongst a community of other men, and I realized that our experiences were all very different. I learned not to assume that I knew anything about anybody. Just because I’m in a room full of African-American men does not mean that they all agree on the same things. It seems kind of obvious, but you have to say it out loud because when these things get abstracted into issues like racism in the criminal justice system, it makes all of these African-Americans, who went through the crack epidemic, victims of a racist system. They are, but they’re not only that. They’ve also got tremendous guilt for becoming addicts. A lot of them want to be in recovery. They don’t think of their crack addiction as a problem of racism. Not all of them. As a teacher, especially as a writing teacher, you have to be open to the way they want to make sense of their experience. I’m not doing policy work. I’m doing people work. I’m trying to find what makes sense to these individuals.

College students add to that diversity of experiences with regard to race, gender and sexuality, drug addiction, and the rest. They are just as complex as their incarcerated classmates. When we all take the time to listen to each other we have an opportunity to grow into new understanding together.

JC: Let’s talk about your book. How did get you started? Were you thinking, “Oh, I’d like a book out of this.”

DC: Well, when I was working with the men that I first met in that first workshop in the summer of 2006, I explained to them that I hoped they would want to keep writing, not only for themselves, but for others, who could learn from their stories. If readers could take in their stories in a book, they could learn to not make the same mistakes. For the people out there who still believe in second chances, they could see that you did it; it’s possible. As for the people who are on the fence, maybe your stories could soften their hearts. Those were the reasons I presented to the men, and that comes from my background in rhetoric and in understanding the relationship between rhetoric and an educated citizenry. I wasn’t just teaching people how to write; I was teaching people how to become articulate citizens.

That’s why I wanted to make a book, but I couldn’t have imagined the book that we were going to end up with. I didn’t know how to write that book. I thought I’d end up in a xerox room, stapling a booklet together; I’d put together something in a couple of weeks, and then give it to people. But the quality of the men’s writing—the level of insight, the passion, the storytelling—was so good. “No,” I thought, “I’ve got to put some serious time into this.” I cleared my schedule and thought, “Alright, well, someone has to edit it because not every single thing they write can go into a book.”

Then, I had to figure out how to organize it. At first I thought I would compile an anthology; every man will have a chapter. Maybe I’ll write an introduction. But nobody wanted to publish that book. I thought to myself, “Wow, have they not read Naji Mujahid? Have they not read Terrance Scruggs? These are really good writers.”

Then, it finally hit me. “Oh, right, right, right. Nobody cares about an anthology of prisoner writings because nobody cares about prisoners.” That’s when the guys said, “Dave, our stories are okay, but it’s your interest in our stories that’s going to make a good book. It’s your curiosity that started this whole thing; we wouldn’t be writing these stories if it weren’t for you coming in with these questions. You have to write your story about why you did all this.”

At first, I didn’t really believe them. I didn’t think that I was all that unusual. I thought that they were the ones who were unusual for stepping out and writing so well. They were the heroes. But the reality of it was that I hadn’t yet seen myself for who I had become. I didn’t really know how to see myself yet. Basically I had to do the same thing that I had asked them to do; I had to write my story, so I could see myself–where I was, and what I had become.

We’ve known each other for twelve years now. Some of them I talk to daily, and I know more details about their everyday life than my own brother’s life—and I’m close to my brother. I’m just saying I’m closer to these men because they are my new brothers.

So, that’s why we wrote the book. We wanted to share that story, and I had to understand my role in it to make it our story. That’s the “our” in Writing Our Way Out.  At first I didn’t realize that. I thought this book was just about these ten men writing their way out. But I was a part of that, too. I had to figure how to write that story. So, I wrote my memoir of teaching them to write memoir.

Writing Our Way Out cover

JC: At a reading, Kelvin was asked about how the workshop helped him. He said it had helped, but that first, he had had to help himself. Is that part of the solution—providing, above all else, opportunities for people to find a way out? In other words, writing might not be the solution, but it’s an option, and shouldn’t we be providing more options for people in prison?

DC: Yeah. Kelvin knew when he came to the first class that he had to get off the tier. The tier was filled with unwashed men, their nonsense, and their fights. Goal number one was to get away from all of that. Then, he got to the class, and he realized that it could be a really positive thing for him. He could learn how to help himself. He wanted to tell the truth about why he’d done everything the way he’d done it and how it led to all of this.

I think that’s the solution for all prisoners. Writing might not be their thing, but I think in general, the main question that we should be asking of anybody who is incarcerated is, “What do you need to become a better person?” Not, “You’re entitled to this and not that.” But, “What do you need, how can I help?” And to be open. Sometimes, they might just need to talk. Sometimes, they might just need a referral to a counselor.

Unfortunately, we underfund and undercut and underperform all the time with things like counseling and treatment and education options because we come in assuming we know what they need. I didn’t come in assuming that they needed to write. I asked, “Would you like to write?” I said, “I think it can help.” I didn’t say, “I know it can help.” There’s a huge difference there.

In fact, the guys have told me that had I come in with this attitude that here’s my program, you’re going through these ten steps, it’s going to be lockstep this way, I guarantee it’s going to work, and if it doesn’t work, it’s because you didn’t try hard enough—they would have left. They stayed because I gave them the choice, and I opened myself up to the fact that I might not know everything, even though, I’m the one with the PhD. And guess what? I was right; I didn’t know everything. And how lucky was I to find people that would teach me as I taught them?

The most dangerous thing you can do in a jail or in a prison is to assume equality. Let’s be equals here. You know something, I know something, we’re going to work together. We’re going to explore. That’s inquiry. We’re going to explore a better way together. I’m an educator and that’s how I look at it. I think education is a process of exploring together. I’m not a guy who lectures. I may know more things than you, but it doesn’t ultimately matter. What matters is that you want to learn. How am I going to get you to want to learn for yourself? Well, when you’re ready, and you want me to share what I know, I’ll share. And I hope you’ll share something with me. So I can learn. That’s the process.

Now, why don’t we do that with prisoners? 

I think it’s dangerous to assume equality. It easier to demonize. We don’t look at the kid at risk of gang violence or drug dealing—we don’t look at him and see his potential. We don’t look at him and see his beauty or his knowledge or his talent or his dreams. We look at all of his problems and we say, “Here’s what we know is going to fix this.”

We don’t know shit. You have to humble yourself to what they need to learn. Humble yourself to what you don’t know and imagine that you might actually enjoy learning with them.

JC: You’re learning with them. I like that. As you mentioned before, you’re all about building a community.

DC: Right.

We have to understand what a community is and what it isn’t because the word gets thrown around a lot. I don’t think a community is a set thing. It’s not this container where there’s an insider or an outsider—you’re in my community or you’re not in my community. Community is an opportunity. Community is a question. Community is an invitation. Community is never solved. Community is never fully established. Community is always evolving. Who is accepting the invitation now? What do they bring? What do they need? Community is never settled. It’s inoperable in a beautiful way. I’m not making this up. This is from the Continental literary theorist, Jean-Luc Nancy—that’s the way he defines [community] in his book [Inoperative Community].

When we say that we have got to resurrect community—that we have got to have the “family-values community” or that we have got to have the “religious community”—we make a huge mistake. We assume community already exists. It doesn’t exist. You’re not bringing in a religious community and getting people to join it. If you do that, you’re killing community. You’re assuming that you know what it is. You can’t just come in and force people to submit to a community that you control. That’s not community. That’s not the way I understand community. That’s power, that’s authority, but that’s not community. Community is the invitation to build something with somebody. That’s always existed; that’s never going to die. You can’t kill that. That’s why prisoners are able to write, despite the oppression, the depravation, the discrimination. They’re able to write because they can imagine community; they can imagine somebody who might read this. They might even give it to another friend—until, suddenly they’re all reading and writing together, and they’re talking about it. That’s community.

JC: Why should someone read this book?

DC: What people who have read the book and enjoyed the book most often say is that it’s inspiring because all of the men are so vulnerable and open. It’s inspiring, I think, because it shows ordinary people doing extraordinary things. You can come with nothing but a question and a desire to grow, and you can get your answers and you can grow. That’s what we did. We grew through this process together. We figured out how we can become better men. I became a better teacher. They became better fathers, brothers, workers, writers. It’s inspiring to see ordinary people helping each other. I think it gives a model of what we should be doing a lot more of in society, that is, coming together across whatever boundaries that seem to be dividing us and finding ways to help one another.

The other thing is that it’s tragic that you go see these men humbling themselves to this journey of discovery and doing everything that they can to grow, and the world goes on being the world. It’s sad. Once they’re out, they face discrimination towards felons and black people. They have to build things back up with their families. They continue to struggle with their addictions. The world goes on being the world.

That’s the human condition. Yes, you can come together to discover a way to change and improve, but if you don’t keep at it, the world comes back in and reminds you of just how hard it is to change. That there’s no easy solution is simultaneously inspiring and tragic. But it’s worth trying.

Photo of David Coogan by Skip Rowland

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