1 of 5
Naisha recites a poem about her mother, who died on February 27. Photo by Ash Daniel
2 of 5
Earlier this year, Lindsay was sent to the isolation unit for 10 days. “[Writing] kept me from losing my freaking mind,” she says. Photo by Ash Daniel
3 of 5
The city jail was built in the 1960s to accommodate 882 prisoners, but the typical daily population is about 1,350 according to Sheriff C.T. Woody Jr. Photo by Ash Daniel
4 of 5
Anthony is in the Men in Recovery tier at the city jail. The addiction recovery program focuses on behavior modification and uses a 12-step approach to stop substance abuse. Photo by Ash Daniel
5 of 5
Mike, the class emcee, spends most of his time during class mixing beats over poetry that inmates have recorded with Ableton, a music production technology that he learned how to use while in jail. Photo by Ash Daniel
Pockmarks from bedbug bites cross the tops of Lindsay's hands — reminders of the months she spent living in a two-bedroom apartment with seven drug dealers. Worn tracks along the veins in her arms chronicle years of heroin use.
She is among more than 50 prisoners and 20 Virginia Commonwealth University students and teachers crammed in a 300-square-foot room in the basement of the Richmond City Jail. They sit shoulder to shoulder on turquoise plastic chairs and atop splintering wooden desks pushed along cinder-block walls. The room smells sickly sweet, like a mixture of sweat and bleach.
The limbs of Lindsay's slight 5-foot-7-inch frame move passionately in rhythm with the cadence of her words as she recites a poem to the overcrowded room. As she rhymes, she tells the story that led her to this accidental pulpit for a second time.
"Midlo, Hull Street, Belt Boulevard, Broad Rock, J.D., Maury, Chicago, Decatur and Walmsley. Each street's been my home back in the day, now I'm standing here in front of you calling my home 1701 Fairfield Way."
The inmates and VCU students erupt in applause.
Together they are classmates in a dual-enrollment poetry class cosponsored by the university's Open Minds program and the Richmond City Sheriff's office. The class is one of two college courses offered at the city jail each semester. It is the only jail poetry class in the state and one of just a few nationwide. Students receive college credit for the course, and inmates receive continuing education units.
The poetry class is an offshoot of an autobiography workshop started by English professor David Coogan in 2006. That class, which met inside the jail chaplain's office on Saturday afternoons, was intended to help incarcerated men write a new ending to their life stories.
Coogan got VCU formally involved in the spring of 2008, and as more colleagues showed interest, the Open Minds program grew. In the past six years, class offerings have ranged from religious studies to African-American history.
In February 2012, assistant English professor Liz Canfield started the poetry class through VCU's Department of Gender, Sexuality and Women's Studies.
Lindsay was in Canfield's first class.
In 2012, Lindsay was serving time for larceny. The dealers she was living with robbed someone and told the police she was involved, she says. But a litany of misdemeanor convictions litters her criminal record. She says that most of her crimes stemmed from her drug habit. "I think the first time I ever smoked weed with my mom I was 15. I started doing coke with her when I was 17. I started doing heroin with her when I was 20."
Still recovering from withdrawal when she entered the poetry class, Lindsay remembers feeling nervous on her first day two years ago.
"I didn't talk," the 24-year-old says. "I didn't say nothing, and Liz was like, ‘No, Lindsay. You have a story. Tell it.' "
Lindsay started to write.
From the bunk bed in her jail tier, Lindsay wrote about losing her virginity when she was 11 years old to a rapist. She wrote about marrying when she was 16 and about the three years of physical abuse she endured until divorcing at 19. She wrote about her life as a prostitute, working the corner of Castlewood Road and Walmsley Boulevard. She wrote about being raped by a client.
"I remember every detail of what he did to me," she says. "I can remember him dragging me out of the car and the way it felt to hit the gravel. The way my skin felt when I had to get up after the hour-long agony he put me through and dig gravel out of my skin."
Those types of experiences intensified her drug use.
"I did an eight ball and some change of coke and four grams of dope the night I was raped," she says. "To forget it. To block it out. Drugs block out everything. Don't you know? Drugs make everything better until you come down off them."
After being released on bond at the end of February 2012, Lindsay moved in with a friend at Falling Creek Apartments in Chesterfield. She started using again that day.
"It's the only lifestyle I knew," she says. "I went right back around the same people. I didn't change anything about myself."
Eventually, she was arrested again for violating probation.
Back in class two years later, Lindsay reads a poem about her mother to the now-familiar faces.
"After a year on the coke scene I decided to join my mother and sister and do the pills and the dope thing. Mom and I did everything together. We were so close. Never thought our bond would be the cause of her deathly overdose."
Her poem recounts the day in August 2010 when her mother overdosed on heroin while babysitting Lindsay's barely 1-year-old daughter at the Budget Inn on Jefferson Davis Highway. Lindsay was cleaning houses to pay for the motel room at the time. Her mother died that September from complications caused by the overdose.
"Getting high after that just wasn't enough. I had to try my best to do too much."
Her classmates nod and sigh in support as she reads. Friends pat her on the back and hug her as she settles back into her seat.
"Man, we some hurt people," a young classmate says after Lindsay sits down.
A few months after moving from Chicago to Richmond in 2004, a gang rape occurred in David Coogan's Libby Hill Park neighborhood.
Four teenagers, who were on juvenile probation at the time, were charged with the rape.
"I started to ask myself why people would do something like that," Coogan says. "My idea was: Is it possible for at least half of the people who get incarcerated to write their ways out of the mindsets that got them incarcerated?"
Recent studies by the U.S. Justice Department's Bureau of Justice Assistance show that, on average, inmates who participated in correctional education programs had 43 percent lower odds of returning to prison than inmates who did not. That research also noted that while approximately 700,000 individuals leave federal and state prisons annually, about half of them will return to prison within three years.
In 1994, inmates of state and federal prisons became ineligible for Pell grants through an omnibus crime bill that President Bill Clinton signed into law. "The number of college programs went from something like 35 or 40 percent nationwide to 8 percent," Coogan says. "Despite knowing that education reduces recidivism, as a country we cut Pell grants to prisoners, effectively cutting off higher education."
The Open Minds curriculum is financially backed by VCU. In January, the university's Quest Innovation Fund awarded the program a $25,000 grant. "I see this grant as a culmination of the good work we've been doing," Coogan says. "It's pushing us to the next level."
In the spring of 2008, Victoria* was working at Daddy Rabbits on Broad Rock Boulevard. It was a slow night.
The mother of four had started stripping in 1999 when she was 15 years old to pay for a car.
"I lived with my mom, [but] she was constantly working," she says, adding that a lot of her older sister's friends were strippers. "I'd seen the money."
Within a few months, she became pregnant with her first child. The father was a 33-year-old man.
"My main reason for working was to provide for her," Victoria says of her daughter, now 14. Soon after her first child was born, the South Richmond native stopped attending high school and moved out of her mother's house on Brook Road into an apartment off Hull Street.
"When I met my husband and started doing [heroin], that's when it spiraled," she says of the man who introduced her to the drug eight years ago. "We started using together, and I quickly became sick and very addicted to it."
On that slow night at Daddy Rabbits, two men in their 30s approached her and asked if she would work a bachelor party at their house. "All I could think about was, ‘I need rent money, and I need drug money,' " she says.
Victoria left the club and followed the two men in her car to a rancher off Iron Bridge Road. The house was empty when they arrived, but the men assured her that guests would be arriving soon.
She stepped inside the bathroom to get ready for the party and then returned to the living room.
"I looked at the TV, and there was porn on, and I said, ‘Oh, no,' " she says. "My heart raced and I went to get up; and that's when they yanked me and grabbed all my stuff."
One of the men knocked her down with a Colt .45-caliber pistol, and the two took turns raping her.
"I can remember seeing pictures of the more aggressive one," Victoria says. "It had to be his home because I saw pictures of him with a woman. I saw a balloon. There had to be a birthday party recently. I remember seeing all of that, but I was blacking out."
A few agonizing hours later, she was back behind the wheel of her car.
"I don't remember how I got the keys and how I got in there, but I remember I was saying ‘Go to the police,' " she recalls.
Victoria never made it to the police station. She did cocaine that night and spent the next month getting high in her apartment while her children stayed with her mother and the father of her first child.
"I decided not to go [to the police station] because I thought, they're going to blame me," she says. "When I tell [the police] I voluntarily went to that house, it's going to be my fault."
It's late February at the Richmond City Jail. Inmates in orange, blue and red jumpsuits greet each other as they file into the packed classroom. Laughter echoes off the worn cinder-block walls, muffling the angry shouts from the overcrowded cellblocks on either side of the classroom.
Victoria is seven months into a yearlong sentence. She had stolen her mother's credit card in 2006 to pay for heroin and was sentenced to six years with six suspended as long as she reported to her probation officer. After repeatedly absconding from drug tests, she was sent to jail.
The 30-year-old never wrote before starting Canfield's poetry class.
"I remember everyone was reading poetry, and I thought, ‘I'll never do that here,' " Victoria says. But in the weekend following the class, she couldn't sleep. "I went back to my past, and I wrote. I came back to class, I read it, and I continued to write."
On this cold February morning, she reads a poem she recently wrote about the rape in 2008.
"Just grab a blanket out a basket. Only to avoid evidence of blood specks on his wife's caramel cream Persian rug. I see a child's balloon. The number two. It's pink."
In the middle of the poem, Victoria stops and her green eyes well with tears. Behind her, a classmate takes hold of her shaking shoulders and offers words of encouragement.
"Take your time," he says. "You've got John and me right here."
Every morning when Richmond City Jail education director John Dooley arrives at work, he sees people who were released that morning on the front steps.
"You'll see people walking up and down 17th Street with all their stuff," he says. "They have no place to go."
Sometimes they'll walk a few blocks to crash at abandoned warehouses in Shockoe Bottom or high-end lofts under construction in Church Hill.
Resources such as Rubicon, a Richmond-based chemical-dependence treatment center that is funded through programs such as Richmond Behavioral Health Authority, provide recently released inmates with addiction-recovery classes and temporary shelter.
"Some of our folks come directly from jail," says interim executive director Larry Everette, adding that of the approximately 14,000 people admitted to Rubicon's three facilities in Richmond and Petersburg in the past year, about 70 percent of them had a criminal record.
After being treated at the inpatient program for 30 to 90 days, Rubicon residents sometimes go to recovery houses or the men-only alumni house at the nonprofit's Highland Park campus. Many return home, but often not to stay.
"Once they're released from Rubicon, they're right back in the situations they came from," Dooley says. In the more than 36 years he has worked at the jail, he's seen most of the inmates return multiple times. Often, released inmates will be arrested again within 48 hours. An analysis from the Criminal Justice Services Department found that of the 55,000 inmates released from Virginia jails from July 2005 to June 2006, 18.7 percent were arrested within six months and 29.9 percent were arrested within 12 months.
Everette attributes most of the recidivism to people returning to the environments they were in before being arrested.
City public defender Susan Hansen agrees with Everette. She has been representing Richmond's indigent population since the office opened in 1986.
After leaving jail, she says, her clients face a range of obstacles, including finding employment and housing.
"They've kind of got a scarlet letter on," she says. "It's not politically popular to care about these people as opposed to the victims of crime. They don't get a lot of sympathy."
Late in the evening on Dec. 4, 2009, two men robbed the Fas Mart on East Main Street at gunpoint.
With a few hundred dollars and a carton of cigarettes, the men got into a Dodge pickup truck and were soon racing from police on New Market Road in Henrico County at speeds reaching 80 mph.
At 11:09 p.m., the Dodge Ram 1500 crashed into a utility pole, flipped and hit a tree near Hickory Avenue.
Andre Simpson and Lawrence Murchison died from impact.
A few days prior, Simpson, one of the first inmates in Coogan's autobiography writing workshop, had spoken to a class of university students.
"Andre was an honest, soul-searching writer who was trying to change his life," Coogan says. "He was highly optimistic and determined."
The 38-year-old Church Hill native was working with Coogan on a book — Writing Our Way Out: Memoirs from Jail . In it, he wrote about his first taste of heroin at his father's knee when he was 12. He wrote about his childhood dream of becoming a fireman.
"He was on his way to realizing that dream," Coogan says, adding that Simpson completed a City of Richmond Department of Fire and Emergency Services entry test a couple weeks before his death.
"When he died, I was left wondering if I was a big fat idiot or not," Coogan says. "And my conclusion was that no teacher can know what any student will do after the class is over. I couldn't be with him in those moments when he decided not to follow the lesson anymore."
On March 4, the city opened a new "day reporting center" at the Public Safety Building downtown. Located across the courtyard from the John Marshall Courts Building, it is intended to serve as an alternative to jail for low-risk offenders.
"The point is to identify the triggers for the behavior," Commonwealth's Attorney Michael Herring says. The center will offer counseling and assistance with job applications.
The 8,000-square-foot space is equipped to serve about 150 offenders at any given time. People who would have otherwise been sent to jail for three to six months will have the opportunity to report to the center, where they will be randomly drug tested before participating in programs.
"[The center's opening] coincides with a need to reduce the jail census," Herring says.
In the spring, a new $134 million city jail is scheduled to open with 1,032 beds. While this updated facility will accommodate 150 more people than the current jail, it will be overcrowded on the day it opens. The typical daily population of the Richmond City Jail has been about 1,350, with most inmates serving 18 months to three years for drug violations or misdemeanors, according to Sherriff C.T. Woody Jr.
"Jail and incarceration are like dead time," Herring says. "It's like a pause, and if you don't come face-to-face with the reason they put the person there, when you release the pause button, you go back to whatever was causing the person to offend in the first place."
Herring sees the new reporting center as an alternative to the traditional punitive justice model.
"The theory is that regular rigorous programming that assumes sobriety will reset the offender as opposed to pausing the offender," he says, but he realizes that ex-offenders have a tough road ahead of them.
"In today's market, an ex-offender has a harder time than someone who doesn't have a criminal record," Herring says. "So this notion that we're going to reprogram the thought process of the offender and out comes a new and improved widget who's ready for the workplace is naive. These guys are still going to have a tough if not tougher time than they had when they went in."
Liz Canfield, a VCU assistant professor who teaches the jail poetry class year-round, plans to host weekly poetry workshops at city community centers for released inmates. She hopes the program will provide the same sort of community that inmates found in the jail poetry class and that the routine of attending class regularly will help keep ex-offenders on track.
"We can't do anything right away about endemic poverty or racism or any of that stuff in Richmond," she says. "I can't fix that tomorrow, but things like the workshop we can do fairly easily."
In the nine months Victoria served at the Richmond City Jail, she earned GED, Career Readiness, and Applied Technology certifications. After she is released this spring — a few months early due to good behavior — she will go back to living with her mother on Brook Road, but she is planning to get her own apartment once she finds a job.
"I never knew I could do any of this," she says.
In December, she won the women's division of the jail's RVA Has Talent competition for a poem she wrote about her oldest daughter.
"Through poetry I've been able to go back to the past that I for so long have isolated myself from," Victoria says. "It's given me a clear mind about where I came from, where I am now and where I don't want to go back to."
On June 11, she will attend a graduation ceremony for receiving her GED certification.
"John's going to be there," she says of the jail's education director, adding that she plans to start classes toward an associate's degree in American Sign Language at J. Sargeant Reynolds Community College in the fall. "I see the support I have."
Lindsay expects to be released on June 19 — her daughter's fifth birthday — and she will temporarily move in with a friend she met in the class while her daughter continues to live with her father. Her new roommate, whom Lindsay met while the woman was serving time for crack cocaine possession, lives in South Richmond — the neighborhood where Lindsay grew up. She hopes to start reading poetry at open mic night at The Hippodrome and might write a book of poems one day, she says.
"[Writing] gives me hope," she says. "It is my outlet."
After her release, she plans to come back to the jail for the poetry class on Friday afternoons.
"These are the people who inspire me," Lindsay says of her classmates. "Jail doesn't have to be the end. It can be the beginning."