Joel Tate, 58, a Germanna professor who has lived in
Culpeper since 1976, tells the story of a day in one of his
sociology classes when a student he calls Mr. Computer
read aloud a short story he’d written.
The story was about a middle-class couple who ran
into a boy on the street. Mr. Computer had written it after
reading an assigned book called “There Are No Children
Here,” which described gang life in Chicago.
“Damned if I didn’t get tears in my eyes,” Tate said.
“I let him read it, and I looked at those guys in their blue
denim shirts with tears running down. One guy shook my
hand and said, ‘Dr. Tate, I hope you don’t expect me to
write like he did.’ I said ‘No. I can’t write like he does.'”
The students in Tate’s class all wore blue denim shirts
because they were all prisoners at Coffeewood
Mr. Computer (Tate doesn’t reveal his students’ real
names) has since been released and gotten a job as a
computer programmer. “He wrote me a note,” Tate said.
“Things are going fine.”
At the Coffeewood complex near Mitchells, there are
three prisons, an adult male medium-security prison
operating since December 1994, a juvenile
maximum-security prison built last year, and a juvenile
detention-center built along with the juvenile prison. The
adult facility alone contains about 3.5 percent of the
population of Culpeper County, or 1,182 inmates,
according to the warden, Daniel T. Mahon.
The intended capacity of the prison is only 648. The
prisoners come from all over Virginia, and Culpeper
residents who go to prison are sent all over the state.
Although Coffeewood’s prisoners live within the
county, they are not usually thought of as part of the
Few Culpeper residents are given a glimpse of what
life is like for those inside Coffeewood, and obtaining
information on the prison can require a good deal of
But one group of people with some access to the
prison is made up of Germanna teachers, including Tate,
who talks openly of the successes and limitations of the
educational programs there.
Coffeewood is one of the few correctional institutions
in Virginia to have a college program in operation, and the
only one with scholarships from a private foundation.
“Germanna is very paranoid, very guarded,” Tate said
of discussing the program. But, unlike many other people
contacted at Germanna and Coffeewood, discuss it he did.
“I’ve been called into the president’s office a few
times for being at liberty in what I say,” Tate admitted,
adding that his comments are “my views only.