Open Minds scholarship opens doors for former inmates

Austin Walker
Staff Writer

The Open Minds program is a collaborative effort between the Richmond City Sheriff’s Office and Virginia Commonwealth University to bring higher education to men and women who are incarcerated in the Richmond City Jail. Photo by Anya Shcherbakova

VCU’s newly installed John Patrick Dooley Open Minds Scholarship covers all college expenses for a single VCU course for formerly jailed inmates following their release from the Richmond City Justice Center.

The scholarship is a product of VCU’s Open Minds program, which is a collaborative effort between the Richmond City Sheriff’s Office and VCU to bring higher education to incarcerated men and women through collaboration with university faculty and students. The first three recipients — Christian Brackett, Pinetta Fleming and William Scruggs — were awarded the scholarship in February at the Richmond City Justice Center.

The Open Minds program was created in 2011 with funding coming from a grant provided by VCU’s Division of Community Engagement. The operations are managed by faculty members at VCU, including professors of the English, Focused Inquiry, Religious Studies and Family Medicine departments.

The Open Minds classes are taught at the jail and include select VCU students and inmates. Participating students go through an application process and must complete proper documentation with the Sheriff’s office before joining the class. Each course is three credit hours for VCU students, and can contribute to continuing education credits for inmates.

“Our two institutions have never had a scholarship to encourage the best students who happen to be incarcerated go on to become the best students on campus,” said David Coogan, a VCU English professor and co-director of the program. “We hear a lot about the schools-to-prison pipeline. With this new initiative, we hope to create a prison-to-school pipeline.”

Coogan’s reference to the “schools-to-prison pipeline,” is a national trend in which children move immediately from the public school system into juvenile and criminal justice systems. This pattern is commonly attributed to poverty, learning disabilities and school disciplinary systems that unfairly target certain racial demographics.

The Open Minds program is managed by faculty members from VCU’s English, Focused Inquiry, Religious Studies and Family Medicine Departments. CT File Photo

Coogan has taught at the Richmond City Justice Center since 2006 and has authored several books and essays detailing the importance of education in the prison system. Coogan teaches a 300-level English course at the jail called “Writing and Social Change: Prison Writing.”

The John Patrick Dooley scholarship is named after the father of John David Dooley, who was a teacher at the jail for 36 years and played a pivotal role in establishing and expanding the Open Minds program.

Eligible applicants for the scholarship must have their GED, which inmates can obtain while incarcerated, be enrolled in Open Minds courses at the jail and demonstrate promise for success in VCU courses.

“Not only are we making history with these scholarships, but we are making futures,” said Richmond City Sheriff C.T. Woody Jr. to VCU News in an earlier interview.

According to the Institution for Higher Education Policy, prison readmission in Ohio was reduced by 62 percent in ex-inmates who procured a degree while incarcerated. The Washington State Institute for Public Policy predicted that in Washington, every dollar spent on correctional education saved the state $12.

Opposition to higher education in the prison system typically revolves around the idea that, with taxes and the cost of college already so high, the resources do not exist that will allow us to provide for those who are incarcerated.

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