City Prison Writers

by David Coogan

With a new bag of pens and some legal pads, I invited the men to write their ways out. I did not teach the guys who could not write their names—the ones with deficits, disorders, dementia, or some intractable disaffection. There were no serial killers, complete psychos or pedophiles. I didn’t go to reach the unreachable. I didn’t want to be a hero. My currency was common sense.  I refused to believe they were always and forever products of some environment. But I also refused to believe they owned every choice that got made in their lives. Five months into the workshop, a core group had emerged: Ron Fountain, Stan Craddock, Andre Simpson, Greg Carter, Chuck Hicks, Kelvin Belton, Naji Mujahid and Dean Turner. These were the ones who kept writing after our time at the jail had come to an end, sending me drafts from prison, keeping me up to date on their progress into their new lives even when they found it hard to write. And these were the ones who helped expand the idea of the workshop: in prison, Kelvin sent Terence Scruggs; Naji sent Brad Greene, Kyle Brown and Tony Martin. Phase Two, the correspondence course had began like that.

Before any of these men joined the project, they had already taken the first steps toward change.They were tired of falling. Through their families and friends, their own reading and praying, they had already resolved “no more.” But they had not been challenged to narrate their lives, to reason, morally, by making a story. “These men pour their hearts out,” writes Naji Mujahid when I asked him to explain what our book will be about. They “allow you to enter the most intimate and painful moments of their lives in the hopes of shedding a new light on the causes of crime.” But the reader is cautioned, he also writes “not to interpret the stories as selfish pleas for pity by individuals seeking to blame their circumstances for their own bad decisions. The opposite is true. “Some of these men have served or are still serving hard time for crimes that they have committed. They have accepted responsibility for their actions and are now sharing their stories seeking answers, solutions, and a means to curb the cycle of dysfunction not only in their lives but in their communities and ideally society at large. Their concern is for the millions of children who are trapped in the very same circumstances they found themselves in and who are about to take their first steps down the dark road of incarceration and recidivism. Their concern is for the indifference to this tragedy.”

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