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Instead of jail, low-level offenders are taking an experimental class at VCU focused on writing, healing and self-reflection

From left: Whitney Ligon, who is among the class' diverted participants; Kelvin Belton, a former ...
From left: Whitney Ligon, who is among the class' diverted participants; Kelvin Belton, a former offender who participated in a similar course while incarcerated at the Richmond City Jail in 2006 and is now a coach with the class; VCU student Robb Crocker; and Dave Coogan, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of English, who is teaching the Writing Your Way Out course. (Photo credits: Brian McNeill)

Whitney Ligon, a Richmond resident who has struggled with addiction since she was a teenager, was arrested last fall and charged with two misdemeanors and a felony. The Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office gave her a choice: Serve time in jail or attend a new, experimental Virginia Commonwealth University class focused on reading, writing and healing through self-reflection and self-discovery.

“I thought it was the strangest thing I'd ever heard,” Ligon said. “You take a college course and it's a writing class and your charges get dropped completely? I love writing. I've always loved writing. So I said absolutely.”

Ligon is one of nine low-level, nonviolent offenders who were diverted from jail to take part in a new program called Writing Your Way Out: A Criminal Justice Diversion Program, which is a partnership between VCU, the VCU College of Humanities and Sciences and Richmond’s Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney.

Instead of being locked behind bars, Ligon and the other eight diverted students are taking English 366: Writing and Social Change this spring alongside 10 VCU students.

“We're hoping that the [participants] can move from one stage of their life, or one mindset or lifestyle, into something that they want that's better for them,” said David Coogan, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of English who is teaching the class. “Arguably, that'll be better for everybody because when everybody is pursuing something that is life affirming, I think life is better for everybody. But when they're pursuing something negative or harmful or self-harming, it ultimately harms all of us.”

For both the diverted participants and the VCU students, the class’ three objectives are the same:

  • To write your life story honestly and courageously, delving into your past, the problems that you have experienced, the punishments or consequences you have known, and the possibilities you see in life.
  • To write your life story engagingly and aesthetically, striking the right balance between plotting, describing, characterization, dialogue and reflection.
  • To identify ethical dilemmas in your life story, the stories you read, and the ones you hear in class, facing them compassionately and critically in search of common ground.

 

“I'd like for people to figure out how to write their story in such a way that they can control their story,” Coogan said. “I think a lot of time when people go on living and making choices that are to their detriment, that harm themselves, or in the case of some of the diverted participants, harm other people, when they break the law, when they go on doing that, they're sometimes not aware that they're doing it.”

For each class, the students are assigned a chapter from “Writing Our Way Out: Memoirs from Jail” (Brandylane Books, 2015), which was written by Coogan and 10 men who took a writing class led by Coogan while they were incarcerated at the Richmond City Jail. Two of those men, Dean Turner and Kelvin Belton, are serving as coaches for Writing Your Way Out.

The process of self-reflection and writing one’s memoir — detailing the good and the bad and then sharing it with classmates — can be a powerful and transformational experience, Belton said.

“To put something down of your own personal thoughts and you read them [before others], you have to reflect on the things that you've done,” he said. “I've done a whole lot of negative things in my life. A lot of people who knew me when I was coming up love me and respect me for the person I was. But I don't like a lot of things I did. In the time we spent writing this book, there was a lot of reflection on negatives and positives. While I have done a lot of good, I feel like the bad I've done will never be able to be made up for, so I'm going to do all I can to try to be a better person.

“This is what I feel like I've been chosen to do. I've been chosen to help others. I can't do it from a higher level than what I'm doing now.”

 

A healing circle through writing

Writing Your Way Out came about through a new partnership between VCU's College of Humanities and Sciences and Richmond’s Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney.
Writing Your Way Out came about through a new partnership between VCU's College of Humanities and Sciences and Richmond’s Office of the Commonwealth’s Attorney.

The diverted participants were selected by Richmond Commonwealth’s Attorney Michael N. Herring and others in his office. To be eligible, participants needed to be low-level offenders who have demonstrated a motivation to break the cycle of crime in their lives and who also have a facility with writing and reading. No one was eligible if he or she had previously been convicted of a sex offense, a violent felony involving a crime against a person or any form of burglary.

All participants follow a code of conduct. Violations — such as too many unexcused absences — by diverted participants are referred to the Commonwealth’s Attorney’s Office.

For the VCU students who take part, they first are interviewed by Coogan to explain their interest.

“I always meet with them and talk and ask them, ‘Why do you want to sit — no, really — why do you want to sit in a room with people that you don't know and write like this,’” he said. “I'm trying to run a healing circle through writing.  So, if you have a hunger for that process, then this is the right class for you. That's how I think people form the trust. It starts with a desire to want to be a part of something positive and just a very frank discussion of what the class isn't.”

Since 2011, Coogan has taught Writing and Social Change, a service-learning course, at the Richmond City Justice Center as part of Open Minds, a program he founded in which 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.

VCU student Robb Crocker, a former writer, journalist and editor, said he has been learning from his fellow VCU students and the diverted participants alike.

“I'm learning from the students who have been placed in the course but just as much, I'm learning from [VCU] students who are in the course,” he said. “I think we're all learning from each other. That's one of the things about this course that's just so amazing. If you could be a fly on the wall to hear what we discuss in class, it's intense. It's raw. It's an experience.

“Without cutting into anybody's privacy, I'm learning a lot about how sometimes our conditions growing up, or even as young adults or even into late adulthood, the conditions surrounding us do have more effect on how we behave than we sometimes realize,” he added. “I'm all for ownership of your issues and ownership of mistakes you've made, but there are a lot of things in society — where you are in life, and what you're doing and who you're running with — that can affect [your life and choices].”

Writing his own story, he added, has been a cathartic experience.

“Some things that I hadn't addressed or that I'm in the process of addressing, as far as my personal life and just everyday life stuff, it just kind of helped,” he said. “I kind of scratched the surface last semester [in a rhetoric course taught by Coogan]. This semester, I've done way more than just scratch the surface.”

 

Introspection and hope

Katie Wirth, a junior English major at VCU, reads a piece of self-reflecting writing she wrote before her classmates during a recent Writing Your Way Out class.
Katie Wirth, a junior English major at VCU, reads a piece of self-reflecting writing she wrote before her classmates during a recent Writing Your Way Out class.

On a recent Tuesday night, the class listened as Coogan, Belton and Turner read a passage of “Writing Our Way Out” in which they discussed “The Trap,” the chapter’s title and a metaphor for the impulse to fall back into bad and self-destructive behavior.

Afterward, a few students read aloud from their memoirs in progress, and then listened to feedback from classmates.

Katie Wirth, a junior English major, read a passage in which she described her struggles with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and alcohol.

“As I was writing, it helped clarify a lot of things [about my life] that I never realized,” she said. “It just really gave me a lot more insight than anything I've ever done, like talk to a therapist or anything like that.”

Wirth said she took Writing and Social Change because it combines writing with a humane and empathetic approach to criminal justice.

“I've always been interested in criminal justice reform and how the system seems to be set up to keep people in that cycle of crime. And I've always like writing,” she said. “Those two things didn't really seem to go together until I discovered this class, so it was really a perfect combination.”

Being in class alongside the diverted participants has been an incredible learning experience, she said. “I think we're learning a lot more from them than they are from us.”

Ligon also was chosen to read that evening. She read from a passage in which she described her decision at a concert to fall back into drugs after a period of abstinence.

“I've been struggling with a lot of issues since my teen years,” Ligon said. “When you write something down, it's a lot easier to be kind of separated from it and not own it. But then when you have to read it aloud to the class, you're kind of forced to own it. You can write more than you might say in a therapy session or something like that. So I really just want to learn something about myself, try to do better, try to figure out why I make the same mistakes over and over again. I'm not always in legal trouble, but I keep falling into the same patterns and behaviors. I'd like to understand why and try to prevent that.”

Listening to others — VCU students and diverted participants — read their stories has been especially helpful, she said.

“When other people read, I hear a lot of myself,” she said. “I'm learning just as much from other people in the class as I am from writing my own stuff.”

Writing Your Way Out, Ligon added, has also helped her come to terms with her hopes for the future.

“I have so many different hopes,” she said. “But honestly, this class makes me want to keep writing. I kind of want to write my own memoir. I don't want to be in trouble anymore. I want to make a life for myself. I have two children and I'd like to make a life for them.”