Category Archives: news

Partnership builds community

David Coogan
Republished from The Richmond Times-Dispatch, May 19, 2013

[quote style=”3″]
R.O.O.T.S. participated in an Open Minds seminar this spring at Virginia Commonwealth University. VCU students and R.O.O.T.S. members shared experiences of freedom and incarceration in this writing workshop.

Last week thousands of students in caps and gowns assembled in the Siegel Center to celebrate with speeches, diplomas, hugs and huge sighs of relief. It’s a party and a respite before the next big effort of gripping down, getting a job and moving on in life.
VCU is well known for its many fine academic programs on three campuses: Monroe Park, MCV and the lesser known but no less important red brick building, way downtown, where students without caps and gowns also marked a milestone last week.

On May 9, 35 men and women at the Richmond City Jail received continuing education transcripts — diplomas, if you will — for finishing two college courses sponsored by Open Minds, a program I founded in 2010 with a generous grant from VCU’s Division of Community Engagement and the priceless generosity of Sheriff C.T. Woody Jr.

This partnership between VCU and the Richmond City Sheriff’s Office does not just put a professor like me in front of prisoners. It puts professors, college students and prisoners into life-affirming dialogue with each other. More than training, more than skills, our courses bring the liberal arts into the core of our lives.

Whether we are studying poetry, theories of gender or religious practices around the world, we are studying the human condition alongside the conditions we have all faced in life and the choices we can still make. We come together to enter into that shared humanity and responsibility as citizens, people filled with noble purpose, to build together a world with less crime and less pain.

This is a boundary-breaking, community-building, stereotype-defying and award-winning program: It was spotlighted this past year in VCU’s successful bid to join President Obama’s Honor Roll for Service Learning in Higher Education and, closer to home, it was the 2011 winner of VCU’s Division of Community Engagement, Currents of Change Award for best teaching. It’s a program touching the lives of hundreds, incarcerated and free.

I know of no program quite like it across the commonwealth, and precious few that are like it across the country. As an English professor who publishes on the teaching of writing in under-served communities and who travels to conferences and meets other professors who also teach in jails and prisons, I can at least report the plain truth: The reason Open Minds is unique is because Sheriff Woody is unique. We know he’s our sheriff and, before that, he was a homicide detective, but deep down, he’s an educator: less sheriff to me than school principal. With his compassion and wisdom he has set the right tone for believing that all of us, no matter our circumstances, are capable enough and creative enough to learn.

Volunteering, truly, is a two-way street. In the best moments of it, everyone learns. At least that’s what I understand when the sheriff says, as he has said on many occasions, that “the jail is in the community, and the community is in the jail.” It seems obvious but worth stating, even savoring, as we realize how deeply our fates are entwined. Everyone’s lives get better when everyone takes the time to learn from each other how to make our world better.

As the graduation season grinds on and more and more students in our colleges and high schools “move on,” as the elementary school set refers to the process, I’ll be thinking of our humble ceremony at the jail. I’ll think of the students and faculty from VCU who, like me, can come and go with ease. But I’ll especially be thinking of the ones still incarcerated, who showed me (who always show me), beautifully, in each assignment, each class meeting, each opportunity to share, what it means to grip down and struggle to be free. Congratulations, graduates!

David Coogan is an English professor at Virginia Commonwealth University, and can be reached at or (804) 827-8417. Find out more about the Open Minds program at

Rights restoration

On July 15, 2013, individuals who have committed a non-violent felony will have their civil rights automatically restored by the governor of Virginia. The new process streamlines an outdated system which currently barres as many as 350,000 Virginians from the right to vote – for life.

“Once these individuals have served their time and fully paid for the offenses they committed, they should be afforded a clear and fair opportunity to resume their lives as productive members of our society,” Governor McDonnell said. “For those who have fully paid their debt for their crimes, they deserve a second chance to fully rejoin society and exercise their civil and constitutional rights.”

The change eliminates a cumbersome application and a two-year waiting period for non-violent offenders. The old process also required court orders, references from non-family members, notarizations and offered no guarantee of rights restoration. The new process will be no barre individuals with misdemeanors or convictions.

To restore rights under the new process, non-violent offenders must have completed their sentence and be released from probation or parole and have paid all court costs, fines, victim restitution and satisfied all court-ordered conditions.

Currently, Virginia is one of only four states that permanently bars individuals with felony convictions from voting and other civil rights — even after they have paid their debt to society. Only an application to the Governor can restore their voting rights. For convicted felons in most states, their rights to vote are automatically restored after completing their sentences.

In Virginia, the restoration of rights includes the right to run for and hold public office, to serve on juries and to function as a notary public.

The move is significant because, currently, disenfranchisement – or the removal of the right to vote and other civil liberties – disproportionately effects communities of color in Virginia. One in five African Americans are permanently banned from voting and other civil rights in Virginia, according to the Advancement Project. The organization estimates that between 350,000 and 450,000 Virginia residents are disenfranchised.

The vast majority of disenfranchised persons in Virginia and the U.S. are no longer incarcerated and are tax-paying citizens with jobs and families, who are involved in their communities. At least two-thirds have fully completed their sentences, including probation and parole.

R.O.O.T.S. currently helps individuals with felonies restore their voting rights. Counselors work with ex-offenders to complete applications, obtain references and overcome other hurdles to restore their civil rights.


Content on this page was gathered and republished from the Virginia Secretary of the CommonwealthAmerican Civil Liberties Union of Virginia and The Advancement Project. We gratefully acknowledge their contributions to rights restoration and support of re-entry efforts.