Terence Scruggs, Kelvin Belton and Dean Turner are reading from a book with their names on the cover. They’re used to reading their own contributions within, but this part is different.
It’s a series of prompts on a 2006 syllabus by Virginia Commonwealth University English professor David Coogan — a syllabus for a six-week jail course that turned into a nine-year odyssey of writing, editing and fellowship.
While Turner reads aloud the questions in the living room of Coogan’s Church Hill home, the others smile and exhale incredulously.
“Describe the people from your childhood who really made a difference in your life. … When did you start to get in trouble? ... What’s your ambition for the future and how do you think you’ll get there?”
When Coogan asked those questions of them and seven other inmates years ago, it was, for many, the first time anyone had asked them about themselves. And with the book, “Writing Our Way Out: Memoirs from Jail,” they rewrote their lives.
“I can talk until I’m blue in the face,” Scruggs says. “But when it comes down to being cognitive and saying, ‘This is what I want to say,’ it’s a huge difference, a challenge. You have to be mindful.”
For him, writing is self-awareness, “learning to be vulnerable without compromising myself and my stability.”
In the book, Coogan begins each chapter by writing about the project itself, re-creating classroom dialogues and post-prison collaboration, and weaves it with the men’s texts.
Their stories are filled with neglect, abuse and addiction — watching parents do drugs, dealers in their front yards, their first high. Scruggs tears up while talking about his pre-prison aspirations, as a pre-law student with a young family. “[It’s] like a mist,” he says. “I reach out and touch it and it’s gone.”
The difficulties of re-entering society after incarceration are a potent topic.
“America is the land of second chances,” Scruggs says. “But then when we come home — ‘Have you ever been convicted of a felony?’ These are forms we need to fill out to even get licensed to do certain things.”
“It’s hard to continually stay on that right path when you continually get the door slammed in your face,” Turner says.
Coogan’s anger is palpable. “The system doesn’t let you change,” he says.
Tragically, Andre Simpson, one of the writers in the book, was killed during a police chase in 2009. He’d spoken to Coogan’s class at VCU a week before.
But the book is a portal of hope. “If one kid or teenager or young adult can pick up this book and read my story,” Belton says, “and they don’t go through what we went through …
“To help one person, that is my goal.”
“That’s my way out,” Turner says, pointing at the paperback. “I want this book to be my voice.”
Coogan wants readers to internalize the men’s struggles as their own. “These men are just like you and me,” he says. “There are too many people incarcerated in America because we’ve somehow made it possible in our minds to think of them as completely different from us.”
The book project has already had a ripple effect. Many of the writers are now mentoring young people and adults themselves, coaching, aiding other ex-offenders. Coogan founded a program at VCU, Open Minds, which brings university courses to the Richmond City Jail.
It’s also spawned a deep friendship among 11 men, most of them strangers before 2006. “We all became good friends, good buddies, caring about each other, loving each other,” Turner says. “It turned into a brotherhood, nine, 10 years strong.”
As Scruggs notes, when Belton mentions his desire to change a single life with this book: “I can tell him that he has reached that goal. Because getting me involved has done just that.”
Following is an excerpt featuring a story by Stanley Craddock, with an introduction by Coogan:
“Pretend I’m in jail and these are the bars,” my daughter says from her side of the sprinkler.
I poke my hand through the shimmering wall between us, disrupting the spray, then slump by the fence. The haze hugs me blind.
“What was the name of that guy from your class? You were talking about him yesterday.” She pushes her matted blond hair out of her eyes.
“Stanley,” I tell her.
“How do you spell it? What’s the first letter?”
She picks up a stick. I begin spelling the name. Squatting, she pulls the puddle water like paint. After she’s written the letter S, she asks why they are in jail. She wants to know what I do each Saturday when I leave our home. She nods quickly when I tell her I’m teaching guys how to write about their lives so they can learn how to live better lives.
“Did they put chemicals in their bodies?”
“Some of them.”
“Are they robbers?” Her voice climbs high.
She puts down the stick and looks up and straight into me. Her eyes are green and oceanic.
“Did they say sorry?”
“Motherfucker!” Burt shouts, slamming down his pad of paper. He’s perched in the front pew, sandals off, his white toes pointed toward the altar. “I don’t want that punk-ass anywhere near me!” The other guys shift in their seats, eying me helplessly. The new guy is not working out.
“Look, you’ve got a right to be angry,” I begin. “But in here, it’s all about the writing. You need to get it down on paper so we can help you with it as writing.”
I lean back against the altar and ask him to tell us a story about how things first went bad between him and his father. I’m searching for some logic, large or small, when his feet hit the ground and find their way to the sandals. He asks to go to the bathroom. Having never considered the idea they could leave the chapel, I nod, pretending I know the routine. A collective sigh cuts loose when the door closes behind him.
“That man’s off the chain!” Kelvin says, jabbing his thumb toward the door where Burt left. “You think he’ll stick with it?”
I shake my head. “He’s thinking he needs to persuade us before he can write it. He’s got it backward,” I say. G squints at me, folding his arms across his chest, and I stare back. “He’s got to write it for himself.”
G shifts in his seat. “Why you staring at me?” He grins a little, embarrassed.
“He’s got to make his own peace with whatever happened with his father,” I conclude. “All we can do is help him craft the story of it.” I turn to see Stan watching me with a steadiness, the air rising slowly in his chest.
“Hot dogs! Get your hot dogs!” the man at the baseball game sings out. “Hot dogs! Hot dogs! Anyone want a hot hot dog?” The man keeps on in a high-pitched voice, not knowing that his words are hypnotizing me, sending me deeper and deeper into a trance. For the next few moments, my life is frozen.
You see, hot dogs are my favorite meal. I’ll eat hot dogs morning, noon, and night, and have many times. My fetish for hot dogs started when I was a child, around the age of 5 or 6. My father and I would always share a hot dog meal together. Everywhere we went, we would get a few. Even at home on lazy days, my father would yell across the house, “Hey, Stan! Stan, you want two hot dogs?” And I would come running. “Yes, Dad, two!” So I grew up loving two things: my father and hot dogs.
Where I grew up, in the rich area near Byrd Park, everybody played sports. My father loved baseball. It’s what he understood. But I excelled at football. Any stress in that game, I readily accepted. The press, third down, a yard to go? Give me the ball! Now, my father is not into sports where you sit in front of the TV and just watch a game. That’s not his style. His character is more of a man who fixes things, outdoors, around the house. He was so involved in my playing baseball, he would drive the whole team to games. Now it’s three balls, two strikes, a full count. I’m at the plate. But instead of focusing on the next pitch, I’m worried about what my father is thinking, watching me in the stands. My God! Here comes that last pitch! I’m going down swinging!
Our relationship was lost at three balls and two strikes.
The smiles and sounds of laughter are in the air. We see the “For Rent” sign. Hey look! There’s a new Schwinn bike coming down the street! Though I am 17 years old, I have the mentality of a 12-year-old. Whatever you think is what you are.
I know more about bikes than anything. All my buddies want a Schwinn because they are the top of the line. But the world I was about to enter into on Grace Street was not about bikes, toys, and tag.
My father knocks on the door and I look up at him. With his eyes he smiles, reassuring me that everything is all right. Like a child, I trust what his expression tells me. His knuckles hit the wooden door again. It swings open to a big man wearing a white T-shirt with food stains all over it. His face needs a shave. His hair looks as though motor oil is his grease of choice. I’m not feeling this man.
My father chats with Sloppy Joe for a few moments. Then the man escorts us down the hall, where he pulls out a ring of keys and opens the door to a one-bedroom apartment.
The walls are painted the color of hopelessness. The windows are draped in sorrow. There are no pictures of loved ones hugging the walls, no sense of life in the air, just the stale smell of loneliness. I am used to the sweet smell of my mother’s cooking, the warmth of her kitchen. But the floor of my new home has no carpet to warm it on the coldest of nights. It is my very first jail cell.
Like a ship sunk at sea, lost in the deepest of the deep — so were my father’s thoughts to me that moment he drove off, leaving me naked in the cold world. At the time, I didn’t understand. But I realize now that it didn’t matter to my father what I was thinking or feeling, because he had already decided that morning that two of us would start our journey together, but only one of us would be returning to the place we called home.
According to my mother and father, I was the reason our home had no harmony. A lot of the issues around the household, I became the scapegoat. My father and mother were having problems in their relationship, but they made me feel like I was the culprit. Now, I’m no angel, not by far. But I don’t think I’m the devil.
I don’t recall how we said our goodbyes. But our relationship would never be the same again.
We look to our fathers to give us a strong sense of who we are, to root us in love and form us as young men. All my life, I’ve searched for that. But I know what it is I’m missing. I know I don’t have a true identity. When my father left me in that one-bedroom apartment, it was like he was sending me down the Nile River of adoption all over again.
I wonder, did anyone think about my safety, my emotional stability, or the long-term effects of placing a child out there unprepared? My father did take into consideration that I needed to eat. So he went to a place called Murray’s Steak House that sold wholesale meat products and bought me a case of hot dogs each month. That’s 96 hot dogs a month I ate.
“Hot dogs! Hot dogs!” the gentleman at the baseball game sings out, opening a place in my psyche where I would later become lost, not only to myself, but to all the dreams I’d ever had. Parts of my emotional system lie dormant, even today — undeveloped in that one-bedroom apartment on Grace Street. As a young boy on Grace Street, Wrong found me. Negative thinking came with him. I can still recall all the lonely days I spent there, in that room. Even today, as I write to you, my friend, I’m still living there in my mind. I just call it my prison cell.
“Hot dogs! Hot dogs!” again, the gent sings. As he draws near, I can smell them. I can’t resist. So I shout in a very loud voice, “GIVE ME TWO!” One for me and one for that lost child. You see, the moment we came together as one, we were no longer alone.
Now, some things never change. I still love hot dogs. And I still love and care for my father, Mr. Stanley Craddock. S
Published by Brandylane Publishers. Copyright 2016 by David Coogan. brandylanepublishers.com.