Autobiography as inquiry

Photo by Allen Jones

Crafting an Ethical Code in Jail

David Coogan

I’m sitting in a circle with a few dozen men in a classroom sanctuary set aside from the noise and violence and negativity of a jail built to house 800 in the 1960s but now routinely holding more than 1500. The walls of this sanctuary in the Richmond City Jail are unlike the walls anywhere else. They're covered with posters of Malcom X and Mother Theresa and simple print out photos of residents at work. There are books by poets and historians, computers and GED study guides, plastic stackable chairs that are almost always filled with dozens of men in yellow and blue jump suits—signifying their membership in a spiritual program—and your standard tan for felons both of whom have chosen school. At the office desk in the corner sits the teacher with thirty plus years experience tending the mental and emotional lives of these men. John Dooley is well over six feet and tattooed and huge but communicates humility and intelligence and humor rather than the expected fear and ridicule. Besides, there is nothing to fear yet. We haven’t started opening up, getting vulnerable. We haven’t begun writing about our lives. 


Photo by J. Lucas Baldwin

View Eva Russo's photo essay, Hard Time, about life inside the Richmond City Jail. "Working on this project was a fascinating experience. As challenging as it proved to be both technically and emotionally, I considered it a privilege. The jail can be seen as a community, a safe haven, a receptacle of all that's wrong with our society. Or it can be viewed simply as a collection of individuals, each with a story to tell."

On this afternoon, John sits at his desk quietly catching up on some paperwork while I read aloud "The Builder" from Pablo Neruda’s poetry collection, Fully Empowered (1967), a poem that begins solemnly with the narrator announcing that he "chose" his "own illusion" and let his "long mastery" of it “divide up” his "dreams." After dwelling a little in the experience of mastery, the narrator sees salvation in the shape of a ship. He even touches it. But "when it did not come back / the ship did not come back / everyone drowned in his own tears." Somehow the narrator summons the strength to rebuild his ship. With an axe he enters the woods concluding, "I have no recourse but to live" (p. 33). I let the lines settle like dust before asking the men to stir things up by writing about a false illusion that they had chosen, an illusion that divided their dreams. "Did you have a ship that got away?" I ask. Some study my face. Others are already writing. "How will you rebuild?" I call time after ten minutes and look around the circle. I barely get the chance to ask who wants to read. Emanuel is already on his feet ready to go. I nod for him to begin.

Nice cars, big chains: crack to cocaine.
Dope man serving dope man to whomever—rain sleet or snow man.
My illusions came from dudes cruising with broads on Broad Street.
Weekends popping, bodies dropping that’s shhh.
Money, power, respect is what I need to be that dude.
My crooked teeth, Eddie Monster look and bow legged feet.
Low self-esteem is what was causing my defeat.
I had to cover these things up so people wouldn’t pick on me no more.
Then I could be the man.
Then I got older and became the man.
But I didn’t realize that the game would bring so much pain.
Police watching, homeboys plotting, dope-fiend wearing a wire.
Boy, my block is on fire!
Running, ducking, dodging, Mom crying
Dad’s dying from cancer.
My best friend’s name is cancer man.
But this was my plan to be the Man.
Wow, this mess is insane.
All these false illusions
False power and perception because I wanted to be the Man
Now I realize that I suffer from low self esteem.
Now I'm learning the difference between perception and what’s real.

When I asked the men to write about a false illusion, I was asking them to judge their character, those habits of mind we can discern from behavior. Though I don’t know in advance the guys' charges, I assume from the outset that part of the reason why they are incarcerated has to do with the question of character. There are other reasons, of course: unjust drug laws, rigid sentencing guidelines, a lack of jobs in the inner city, criminal role models in their neighborhoods and families, the ubiquity of gun violence. We could multiple reasons like figures in a Russian nesting doll. But we are writing about the reasons close at hand, the ones we know best, ourselves. And we're doing not only for ourselves but for each other. That’s why I call it inquiry. We're building an ethical code together from the key moments in our lives.

The full version of this essay appears in Working for Justice: A Handbook of Prison Education and Activism (University of Illinois Press, 2013). Learn more »


A Teacher's Perspective

John Dooley, Co-director of OPENMINDS, describes his experience teaching in the program:

As a fortunate member of Dave's Open Minds Project, i am Blessed to be able to share in the waves of new consciousness that are exchanged between the soul – fires of the Students from VCU and the Students of the Richmond City Jail School.

i have awaited such an exchange, such a Giving for 34 years. Dave Coogan, Jon Waybright, Liz Canfield, and Iyelle Ichile and all of their VCU Students, have entered the herein of one of the largest, antiquated, overcrowded, and dangerous prisons in the United States so as to offer, kindly, respectfully, tender – like, receptively, always Giving, university – level academics and studies and readings and writings, and, too, Love.   Love.

Dave, in his poet's process, and Jon and Liz and Iyelle and all the VCU Students and RCJ Students in our sacred care, have touched each other's souls and eyes and hearts with passion and with ecstasy, with rich visions. Our souls have embraced, our wandering hearts like oceans, as river floatings, have experienced compassion, compassion as invoked by each rising sun.

Friend, don't mess with me by doubting my words here. Harken, sip these words with your heart's eyes. Think of a tree's roots. Listen to the discovery of emotions. Approach and and know that You are beckoned and that You are welcomed.

Student Work

English 366

by Pat

It's been weeks since I've met them
And strangely I've grown closer to them
But I wonder if they feel the same
Week after week we engage in conversations that
I only would imagine you would tell a special friend
Am I a special friend? Do you look at me strangely because I'm in jail?
I know for me you all have become a part of me
I've given you my life through my words
Shared some of my childhood nightmares
Adult misfortunes and my future plans
Over these last couple of weeks hearing ya'll stories
Opened my mind up to a whole nother world
I thought just because they were free an in college they lived in a whole nother world den me.
But, through the things said in class to me we're all dealing with a struggle
A different struggle, from the next person but, it's our individual struggle
So who's to say whose struggle is worse then the next?
Each Thursday I hear your voices and
I hear your stories and I feel your pain wishing I could do something to make it all go away.
Class 366 Writing and social change has really made a change in me.
Wonder if Dr. Coogan knew it would be this way?
Ya'll don't even have the slightest clue how much Thursday means to me
Think about it
Who in their right mind would pick a class that comes to a jail?
And sit down an talk to guys like me about some real personal shit
One crazy thing is how you all tell your stories and walk out the door
To leave me hear wondering is it more to the stories, is she gonna be okay?
Needless to say ya'll are always on my mind throughout the day
Because you all a part of me
Don't look at me like I'm crazy but
You gotta look at it from my shoes
I'm here locked up on a tier with a bunch of assholes
But when Thursday 1:00pm comes
I know I'm on my way to the sanctuary where you all await
As I walk to the door I see different faces different smiles that make my day
And I pick a seat next to whoever speaks first or who I had a great conversation with last class
You gotta understand I spend more time with you all den I do my family
Yeah I get a 20 minute visit a week through a glass and I can hardly hear them speak
But with you all I actually sit down side by side and bond through our prompts
So how you expect me not to get attach to you all?
So if you were in my position and I was in yours
Would you feel like me?
Or would you feel like the rest of the world
Leave them alone to rot because they're criminals and they're opinions and education don't
But on behalf of the class we're no criminals: we just made bad choices that landed us here.
As I leave this place in a couple of weeks I'll never forget about English 366

A Day in Prison

by Jasmine Luckey

Doors lock.
As I wait to see what my future holds, I'm shaking.
Open doors, they walk in.
People like you and I—different paths taken.
I feel this awkwardness, like I'm the one who's being judged.
They sit down, everyone is afraid to budge.
My mouth is paralyzed, yet screaming to speak my mind.
Will they hear me?
Maybe the outside isn't always what it seems.
I want to know their dreams—far from this prison scene.
Scribble Scribble.
I'm sure our stories are quite alike.
Just loosen that lock on your mind, not so tight.
Let's discuss love, hate, pain, and tragedy.
To find out you're not the only one who grew up without a daddy.
Stereotypes…Break them!
This class isn't just for the ones' who've sinned.
We're in this all for the better.
So open your hearts and let's start changing our lives together.

Penelope: Poetry for Social Change

Created, compiled, and edited by the VCU OPEN MINDS program (Spring 2013).