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.

Sean Case: from Ojibway Correctional Facility in Michigan

I’ve always needed to write – to think out loud across the page, agonize over the smallest turn of a phrase, edit the same stanza over and over until I’ve come as close as I can to perfection or abandoned it in favor of some fresher verse. But it wasn’t until my incarceration that I developed the corresponding need to be heard. Whereas before I was content with private journaling, with English as catharsis, now I required an audience, an energy to bounce my ideas off of. At the bottom of the social casserole, I suddenly needed assurance that I was worth something – on paper, at least.

So I met with fellow poets on the yard to share our prose aloud. I sought out prison creative writing programs and worked to start them where none existed. I found publication for my own writing and that of my peers. With the assistance of people like Buzz Alexander, Suzanne Gothard, Eric Gadzinski, Judith Tannenbaum, and others directly or indirectly involved with Michigan’s PCAP, I learned methods not only to refine my own writing, but also to help others improve their own.

Through forums created by prison arts programs (and a few willing publishers), I’ve been able to remain a part of the reality outside these fences by sharing my view from within them, and that connection has enabled – more than any other aspect of this experience – my development into a socially-mindful (I hope) human being.

Listen to an essay of Sean here.

The New York State Literary Center’s Jimmy Santiago Baca Library, Writing, and Publishing Center at Monroe County Jail


The Building of Ladders

I have seen first hand how the streets eat childhoods.
There is no discrimination
just randomly picking whatever is around,
devouring it in one full swallow, and
spitting out any bones of humanity.

And I ask why,
and I rage at what I see,
and I cannot stop thinking why does this happen.
And I cannot stop thinking
why do we let this happen.

I have seen the dreams in your eyes,
way back where you think you have hidden them,
I see them trying to grow,
trying to find light.
Where is the ladder for your dreams to climb?

I think what I mostly do is try to show you how to build ladders
that your dreams will be able to climb.

Dale Davis

How It Began

It began with an Empire State Partnership (ESP), funded by The New York State Council on The Arts, between The New York State Literary Center and Rochester City School District’s Youth and Justice Programs in collaboration with the Office of The Sheriff, County of Monroe.

It began with funding from the Palma Foundation for the establishment of a library, writing, and publishing center to reward students / inmates who have demonstrated participation, follow-through, and commitment. It began with students / inmates participating in NYSLC’s ESP who continually asked for a writing center in the jail.
It began with the words of Jimmy Santiago Baca in his memoir, A Place To Stand.

“Language gave me a way to keep the chaos of prison at bay and prevent it from devouring me; it was a resource that allowed me to confront and understand my past, even to writing from it some compelling truths, and it opened the way toward a future that was based not on fear and bitterness or apathy but on compassionate involvement and an belief that I belonged.”

It began with the Sheriff’s Department finding a room on the fifth floor of the Monroe County Jail. The room was being used as a storage room for everything and anything, boxes, storage cabinets, filing cabinets. It began by working with Sheriff’s Deputies and trustees to clear the room and clean it. It began by finding tables, chairs, computer cabinets, book cases that were not being used and moving them in. It began with an installation on the wall, a marriage of hip- hop, African American history, and the work of contemporary writers and artists. It began with placing the artwork and writing of students / inmates on the walls.

It began with the belief that learning is exciting and that a library of books relevant to the students’ / inmates’ identities, histories, and inspiration by inmates who have turned their lives around through writing is important. It began with the belief that a space where students / inmates can come and read and write and be human, a place where the dreams in their hearts can grow and be nourished as they learn technology skills will increase literacy.
Dale Davis

What Happens There

I feel my life is a war, living in a place that is really crazy. People die every day in Rochester, and all I can do is hope that it’s not someone from my family or a close friend. Coming to jail has made me want to change my life around. I am happy to be where I am and not dead or hurt. I am learning new things. When I was going to school, I was mad at the officers for making me go to school everyday or locking me in.  Then one day I came to school and a woman by the name of Dale Davis was there. She was talking about a lot of things, and I was like “She really doesn’t know what she’s talking about.” She was a white woman talking about rappers that I thought she didn’t have a clue about. The I went to The Jimmy Santiago Baca Library, Writing, and Publishing Center. For the first time it felt like I wasn’t in jail the whole time I was there, but I was in jail. I learned there are really people who care about us young men. I didn’t think people cared that much. It’s not like our schools outside of jail. In The Jimmy Santiago Baca Library, Writing, and Publishing Center I see what I am really able to do and there is help there when I need it. It is easy to learn things there that I never in my lifetime thought I could do.

Clarence Cooper

The Jimmy Santiago Baca Library, Writing, and Publishing Center makes me feel comfortable because it fills me with joy and happiness. For example, if I am sad and ready to fight, I go to the fifth floor, and I feel like a different person inside. I feel like I’m no longer in jail. This is why I appreciate what Dale Davis  has done for us because we are in jail. The Jimmy Santiago Baca Library, Writing, and Publishing Center keeps me going while I am in here with knowledge and support and lets me know my life is not over.


In the Jimmy Santiago Baca Library, Writing, and Publishing Center, Dale Davis taught me to never give up on myself. In the short time I have been in this program, I have learned to express myself and share my feelings and my still developing thoughts through writing. I have learned to release the feelings, aspirations, and dreams I have. Please read this with your minds and hearts to understand.

Deep, deepest, yet deeper,
far beyond the plains of poverty, destruction, misery, and lost dreams,
I descend into my soul,
my all, my nothing, my everything,
an island
within this dark cavern,
a vast ocean of hope, dreams, and desires,
an island in a whirlpool of confusion, lack of understanding,
and the child lost in the world
searching, yearning, and longing for love.


The Jimmy Santiago Baca Library, Writing, and Publishing Center is a good idea because incarcerated young men like myself get to go up there to express what we feel is going on in the world and how we feel about being in jail. It’s kind of like a get-away where I can express my feelings and not be ignored or taken for a joke.

Being in that room is like being a deaf person learning to talk. What I mean is usually I am not heard but in that room I am heard, understood, and my opinion does matter. With Dale Davis’ help my point gets out where usually I am trapped like a bird in a cage waiting to be released.

What I am trying to say is the library is a good way for young men to learn to express themselves and their views on life and our world. There should be more programs like this to help young men be heard.


Dale Davis
Executive Director
The New York State Literary Center

If I Didn’t Tell Them…


Toni McConnel

I started writing stories about my experiences as a prisoner about ten years after I got out of the federal penitentiary for women in Alderson, West Virginia.  Among many intense motivations for writing my experiences was the feeling that the women I had known in various jails and prisons would never have a voice, their stories would never be told, if I didn’t tell them.  I felt a moral obligation to give them their voices, especially since there had never been a novel about prison written by a woman who had actually lived a street life (and still hasn’t, as far as I know). Many by men, none by women.

I started visiting jails and prisons to do readings or teach workshops in the mid-1980s.  It wasn’t something I had in mind to do, but Sing Soft, Sing Loud, the novel that evolved out of the stories, had just been published, and as a result of a reading I did in a women’s bookstore in Berkeley, I was invited to visit a writing workshop at the San Francisco County Jail.

In my wildest imagination I never dreamed I would ever walk back into a jail of my own free will, much less sneak in under false pretenses—the poet who ran the workshop didn’t tell the jail administration I was an ex-con because it was unlikely that I would be allowed in if they knew.  Fortunately they didn’t do background checks on visiting writers.

Even after that visit, I didn’t imagine I would continue to “go back.”  But later, back home in Utah, I met poet Richard Shelton, who has run writing workshops in the Arizona state prison system for more than thirty years, and he invited me to be a guest at one of his workshops.  I visited Dick’s workshops several times over the next few years.

Then an enlightened warden at the Utah State Prison for Women wrote to Jean Irwin, administrator of the Utah Artists in the Schools program, and wanted to know if it was possible to have a writer do a workshop in the prison.  And of course I was the writer Jean chose to send. More invitations followed and before it was all over, I had visited jails and prisons in five states.

As a result of these extremely varied experiences I wrote Creativity Held Captive: Guidelines for Artists Teaching in Prisons, which tells artists what to expect from jail and prison administrations and from prisoners, and what they need to do to prepare themselves mentally for the experience. You can read a detailed description of this booklet here.

I now know of other former prisoners who go back to teach or counsel.  They must be stronger mentally than I am.  All my visits were immensely rewarding but also extremely turbulent emotionally.  I identify too much with the prisoners and every visit triggered paranoia and despair. Now, at 77, it is just too much for me.

So my contribution these days is limited to Creativity Held Captive and Sing Soft, Sing Loud, which is still being taught at universities from time to time, so my continuing need to do something for the women I did time with is satisfied by that.

Brothers in Pen: Tragedy, Struggle, and Hope (2008)

Stories from San Quentin

with a Foreword by Tobias Wolff


A new anthology of fiction and creative non-fiction written in an ongoing writing workshop at San Quentin State Prison by twelve men, mostly Lifers, all serious writers, is now available. A strong theme emerging from this collection is the nature of violence and its effects on human beings, and the kind of struggle required to turn violence around. The subtitle of this anthology, “Tragedy, Struggle, and Hope,” speaks to this vision. However, the seriousness of the subject matter doesn’t mean these stories are all heavy and harsh. There is much humor, wisdom, complexity and hope to be found in these pages.

You’ll encounter struggles of temptation and forgiveness, soul-searching inquiries into the past, tragic love stories, battle bots, psychogenic amnesia, first-person accounts of Black Power history, prehistoric family drama, gang cease-fires, tommyknockers, and much more.

The class had the honor of Tobias Wolff visiting and contributing a foreword for this book. “We are storytelling animals,” he writes, and this anthology is evidence of his words.

All proceeds from the sale of this book go through the William James Association to support this creative writing class through the Arts-in-Corrections program.
For purchase information, go to, or contact

Final Cover