SALEM, Ore. – The Oregon State Penitentiary is using poetry, as a survival tool.
For Jacob Greenlee, writing is not just a pastime -- it's a form of therapy, helping him get though each day of the next five-and-a-half years in prison.
He isn't alone. Greenlee said creativity keeps many inmates at the Oregon State Penitentiary afloat.
"I call it internal alchemy," he said. "We're purging our souls of dross."
The outspoken 29-year-old spends every Thursday night in a Spanish-language poetry class for Latino inmates, who make up 25 percent of the penitentiary's population.
With 10 or so other men wearing dark blue jeans and darker blue sweatshirts reading "Inmate," he makes his way to a small classroom, pulls out a pencil and paper, ready to learn.
The class, taught by two volunteers, taps into inmates' creativity, empathy and self-esteem in ways that experts say may help them outside prison.
Two Willamette University students began the Prisoner's Poetry class in September. They have taught eight lessons to men in the penitentiary's 115-member Latino Club, starting with free verse and haiku, each class a bit more challenging than the last.
Reynaldo Goicochea, 21, thought up the idea as a marriage between two of his favorite things: humanitarianism and poetry. He and his teaching partner, Reinaldo Ayala, 20, modeled their proposal after a similar arts program run by University of Michigan students.
Inmates must have at least six months of good conduct to take the class, which has three goals: teach poetry basics, revive inmates' creative abilities and share their works with the outside community.
Amy Pinkley-Wernz, the penitentiary's assistant superintendent, said those lessons could carry the inmates far beyond their time in prison. "It's what they learn internally that may help them in the future -- a new skill; a new way to express themselves," she said.
Goicochea said the program's intimacy allows the men to explore their common humanity.
"I feel solidarity with the men," he said. "I can see part of myself in them. Had I been born in a different family, in a different neighborhood, I could have wound up in a similar situation."
That feeling goes both ways. Greenlee, with a teardrop tattoo near his left eye and three tiny dots near the right, said he has been in and out of jail since age 12 -- this time for armed robbery. That hard time has taken an emotional toll, he said, and the only way to release it is to write it all down.
"You can only hold something in for so long before it comes out," he said. "And when it does, it might not be in the most positive way."
One of his favorite poems is called "Best Day of My Life."
"Every day I wake and take my first breath of life," he recited in English, reading from a copy neatly hand-written on lined paper. "I am blessed to have air in my chest and beating heart in my breast."
Greenlee said his favorite part about the poetry class is getting to interact with people on a deep level. Chances for social interaction are few in prison, he said, and most are superficial.
"These guys really care about us," he said. "We don't talk about nonsense here. They actually want to hear what's meaningful to us."
Goicochea, a senior majoring in rhetoric and Spanish, met Ayala, a junior economics major, in a poetry class at Willamette. When he approached Ayala with his idea, Goicochea made it clear that there was no backing out.
"These are men who have been failed in different aspects of their lives," he said. "We owe it to them to be there every week."
So far, the duo has kept that promise. Prisoner's Poetry originally was scheduled to last 14 weeks, but Goicochea said dates had been set for the class to continue through next year.
Laura Appleman, an associate law professor at Willamette, said programs like Prisoner's Poetry were popular in the 1970s, but these days are few and far between. While they aren't likely turn around hardened, convicted murderers, she said, such programs do provide behavior modification for prisoners who still have room to grow.
"It does provide not just a positive role model for the prisoners, but also something they can aspire to," she said.
"For those who have committed less violent crimes, it's possible that this, along with rehabilitation, could get them back on the right track."
Santiago Tianquistengo, who also goes by Marcos Rojas, 35, said the Willamette University students have filled an important void for the prisoners. Many times, even if the inmates want to do something positive, they can't without support.
With a collection of 115 poems, 90 paintings and two short stories, Tianquistengo, who is serving time for robbery, was an avid artist before attending Prisoner's Poetry.
The class is priceless for the aspiring writer, who said that with a 10th-grade education, he didn't know the technical rules of writing well enough ever to feel fully confident in his poems.
Goicochea and Ayala helped Tianquistengo and two other inmates enter a statewide Spanish poetry and literary contest put on last month by the Salem-based education nonprofit, Faces of America.
Tianquistengo won first place with his poem, "You Will Take Nothing," while the two other inmates won honorary mentions.
"These guys came to inspire us," Tianquistengo said. "It is never too late to start a new life."
Goicochea said he is motivated in part by his Catholic faith. Working with convicted felons was appealing, he said, because fewer people reach out to them.
"One mistake in a person's life doesn't discount an otherwise righteous life," Goicochea said.
Based on reporting by the Associated Press.