Writing workshops offer a refuge in Oregon’s prisons

by Grant Stringer from The Christian Science Monitor, Salem, Oregon

Prison can be a land of “cliques.” Writing workshops and a literary journal offer a refuge behind bars.

155131Daniel Wilson (right) and Tracy Schlapp (center) record an incarcerated writer who contributes to the ponyXpress literary journal at the Oregon State Penitentiary. Courtesy of Stephanie Lane/Oregon Department of Corrections

| SALEM, ORE. - In 2004, Enrique Bautista was serving time at an isolated prison in rural Oregon and wanted to discuss his dreams with his neighbor in the next cell. Others on the tier would hear them if they spoke out loud, so the pair began writing – and then passing sheaves of paper through small holes in their cell doors with string pulled from elastic bands of underwear. 

With those first exchanges of notes, writing became a regular part of life for Mr. Bautista, who is a poet and visual artist and served 21 years in Oregon prisons on assault convictions. Shortly before his case was dismissed and he walked free several months ago, Mr. Bautista discovered a small subculture dedicated to writing in the Oregon State Penitentiary in Salem. 

“Opportunities like that are rare,” says Mr. Bautista, who behind bars penned a book of more than 100 poems with illustrations. He’s now building an organization to mentor youths in Portland.

The Salem prison – Oregon’s oldest – is known for sustaining a relatively rich environment for education and the arts within the state correctional system. Two volunteers, Tracy Schlapp and Daniel Wilson, had launched a writing workshop that resulted in an anthology of meditations on beauty, regret, and confinement.

Mr. Bautista joined the coffee-swilling group as it was planning to build a statewide community of writers inside Oregon prisons that offer fewer opportunities, like the rural institution where he was first incarcerated in 2002. 

In April 2023, Ms. Schlapp and Mr. Wilson launched a literary journal called ponyXpress featuring poetry and prose from incarcerated people throughout the state. In an echo of the famed 19th-century mail service, volunteers hand-deliver fresh stacks of work to an editorial board of seasoned writers at the state penitentiary, who curate collections for publication. They also run writing workshops at prisons for men in central and eastern Oregon and at the state’s only prison for women, just outside the Portland metro area.

Ms. Schlapp, a Portland-based visual artist, leads the workshops. She and Mr. Wilson often drive long hours across Oregon to engage and train new incarcerated writers. Ms. Schlapp is usually surprised at the turnout. “They keep showing up,” Ms. Schlapp said.

155131Courtesy of Stephanie Lane/Oregon Department of CorrectionsA marker changes hands between Enrique Bautista (left) and workshop leader Tracy Schlapp during a writers meeting at the Oregon State Penitentiary.

Logistical hurdles

Much of the writing in ponyXpress comes from writers incarcerated at the medium-security Eastern Oregon Correctional Institution in Pendleton, where a writing workshop regularly draws 25 participants.

Ms. Schlapp typically kicks off meetings by ringing a Tibetan singing bowl, which produces an enduring hum said to heal its listeners.

She must receive approval from the state Department of Corrections to bring the ceremonial instrument into a prison – as is the case with everything volunteers bring from the outside world as educational materials. And the writers must earn permission from prison officials to participate in the gatherings.

That’s one of many logistical hurdles for incarcerated writers and journalists throughout the United States. For instance, Mr. Bautista said he was allotted only two pieces of paper a day when he was first incarcerated. 

Ms. Schlapp’s list of outside materials, called a transport memo, is the responsibility of Matt Reyes, a member of the Klamath Tribes of southern Oregon and northern California who is serving a life sentence at the state penitentiary. Mr. Reyes is president of the Lakota Oyate Ki club for incarcerated Native Americans, which organizes logistics for the literary journal. 

He helped push the idea to develop new writers in the state penitentiary and other prisons.

“All these guys around here, they need to find their voices somehow, right?” Mr. Reyes says.

For Mr. Reyes, writing has helped him make sense of his past after he was convicted of murder in 2018. In one piece, “I Am a Survivor,” he describes his family’s generational trauma and reflects on his use of violence – even lethal violence – to protect his loved ones.

“I thought I only had two options, to ‘protect’ my family or be a ‘coward.’ I can now see another option. I don’t have to take another person’s life,” Mr. Reyes writes.

Stressla Lynn Johnson, who has been incarcerated for more than 30 years, is an editor for ponyXpress who started writing poetry when he was briefly on death row in the 1990s. He comes from a large African American family with deep roots in Albina, an area in Portland where rapid gentrification has displaced Black residents. 

Mr. Johnson tackles his family’s trials in his writings. And as an editor, he enjoys helping new writers work through their own pasts. “I treat people’s writing like they’re letting me babysit for them,” Mr. Johnson says.

155131Courtesy of Stephanie Lane/Oregon Department of CorrectionsMatt Reyes (center) and members of the Lakota Oyate Ki club gather around a drum at a recording session for writers.

A retreat from “the yard”

Mr. Johnson is Black, Mr. Reyes is Native American, and Mr. Bautista is Hispanic. Mr. Bautista says the writing workshops were special because they allowed people from different races and “cliques” to converse and be creative together.

Gangs often shape prison culture. But the writing spaces became refuges from that dynamic, Mr. Bautista notes, where almost everyone was excited to create and connect.

“It didn’t matter what race you were, what clique you were in, whatever was going on in the yard,” Mr. Bautista says. “That, to me, was the most powerful part of the whole operation.”

While incarcerated writers are hard at work crafting their next pieces, Ms. Schlapp and Mr. Wilson are seeking new ways to reach them and fund the program. In mid-December, the pair attended a check-writing ceremony with a western Oregon confederation of tribal nations. They’re also in talks to publish the literary journal on reading tablets in some U.S. prisons, which could put ponyXpress in the hands of 100,000 incarcerated readers.

For Mr. Reyes, it was unthinkable that the words he penned from the state penitentiary would reach anyone on the outside. But he recently learned that a counselor in a Portland public school had given his work to a young Native American student who needed guidance.

“I never thought that anything like that would affect anybody,” he says.

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Page created on 3/13/2024 12:48:12 PM

Last edited 3/13/2024 12:57:33 PM

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