WU students use poetry to help prison inmates express themselves

by University Communications,

The idea came to him while lounging in his dorm room.

He loved poetry. He wanted to help people. So he would teach a poetry class for inmates of the Oregon State Penitentiary.

“I was just sitting there, thinking about how I can bridge my two passions — one being my love for poetry and the other working with marginalized groups,” says Rey Goicochea ’13, a rhetoric and Spanish major at Willamette University. “I wanted to give a voice to the voiceless.”

Four years later, Goicochea achieved his goal by creating the Prisoner’s Poetry class with fellow Willamette student, Rei Ayala ’14. Since September, the two have taught about ten in Spanish to men of the penitentiary’s Latino Club — helping them write everything from free verse and haikus to Italian and Shakespearean sonnets.

Their purpose, Goicochea and Ayala say, is to teach poetry basics, encourage creativity and to share the prisoners’ works with the outside community. They also hope to inspire inmates to make better decisions for themselves.

“If you go to prison for committing a crime, while you are there, you should learn,” says Ayala, an economics major. “You should be able to experience things that can change you as an individual so that you can be a contributing member of society.”

First impressions

Ayala and Goicochea arrive at the prison 30 minutes early. They pass through a metal detector, clip visiting badges to their shirts and show their papers to security guards.

Then they follow a guard down a labyrinth of hallways, ignoring the doors that clang shut behind them.

When he first began teaching, Goicochea was nervous. Now, as the 10-plus inmates enter the classroom in blue jeans and navy blue sweatshirts, he greets them like old friends.

“At Willamette, they push us to do things that are outside our comfort zone,” Goicochea says. “Had I grown up in a different neighborhood, had I not had the family I had, it could have been me. I am very conscious of that.”

Promoting expression

Jacob Greenlee is one of Ayala and Goicochea’s students. At 29, Greenlee has been in and out of prison since before he could drive. Now serving a 7 ½-year sentence for armed robbery, he’s determined to make something of himself when he’s eligible for release in 2018.

“Before coming to prison, I wasn’t really struggling against anybody but myself,” he says. “I’ve definitely learned from my decisions, and I want to do something different with my life.”

Greenlee writes to express himself, and by taking the poetry class, he hoped to improve his craft. What he likes about Ayala and Goicochea, he says, is that they don’t judge him. Instead, they’re invested in helping him learn.

“Words have power,” Greenlee says. “I see that every day, so I want to use words to accomplish my goals and to get things out, to get people to feel what I’m feeling.”

Santiago Tianquistenco shares this sentiment. Serving an eight-year sentence for robbery, the 35-year-old says he’s been waiting for a class like this.

“We didn’t have the opportunity to have anyone listen to us, or for anyone to discover what was here,” Tianquistenco says in Spanish. “Then, this class came to open the doors to many opportunities for many more things.”

Now, not only did one of his poems win first place in a statewide, FACES of America Spanish poetry contest, Tianquistenco aspires to publish his two short stories and 115 poems after released from prison Jan. 21.

“You have taught us that age doesn’t matter,” Tianquistenco tells Goicochea. “Whatever goal we set for ourselves, we can achieve.”

Lasting effects

Amy Pinkley-Wernz, the prison’s assistant superintendent of correctional rehabilitation, is a firm advocate of enrichment opportunities for prisoners.

Open to inmates who’ve demonstrated six months of good conduct, the clubs’ purpose is to reduce recidivism, she says. To date, the penitentiary has 11 clubs and a couple special-interest groups — most of which are run by volunteers.

“I think learning poetry for these inmates is something they never had the chance to do,” she says. “It provides a really healthy opportunity for inmates to learn about their culture and to become more accepting of who they are and what they can do.”

According to the Sentencing Project, a research, advocacy and reform organization, the United States is the world’s leader in incarceration with 2.2 million people — a 500 percent increase over the past 30 years. Most are male, 70 percent are non-white, and many have been stripped of their voting rights.

Michael Chasar, who teaches English and poetry at Willamette, is aware of these statistics. That’s why he supported Ayala and Goicochea when they told him about their plans. The poetry program is modeled after a similar one run by University of Michigan students.

“Any occasion people can get to write, think, reflect and articulate their experiences is important, and affording that opportunity to people who are incarcerated is necessary as well,” he says. “I’m amazed at how quickly Rey and Rei have envisioned and put into practice their ideas. It’s inspiring.”

Having finished their first semester of teaching, Ayala and Goicochea are intent on keeping the program sustainable. They’re recruiting the help of more students, and they’re advising other Willamette students on how to start a similar class for women prisoners. They’re also working toward publishing some of the prisoners’ poetry in an Oregon literary journal.

“Somebody once told me that if you find the right job, you’ll never work a day in your life. That’s what I feel with this program,” Goicochea says. “I feel like I’m making a difference.”

For more information about the Prisoner’s Poetry program, contact Rey Goicochea at rgoicoch@willamette.edu or Rei Ayala at rayala@willamette.edu.