Kevin Jennings was reading poetry to five men convicted of everything from armed robbery to sexual assault.
"All my life, me and my brother have been on the outside of my family," said Jennings, a 20-year-old serving time for burglary. "No matter what we did, we were always wrong. No matter how hard we tried to fit into the family, we were wrong."
The men stared intently. No one spoke.
"But, when you grow up, from the time you were 4 years old until you were 8 years old, without a father, and you have six sisters and only a mother to take care of you, it's very hard to live like that, because you know that your sisters are getting all the love and care."
He looked around for support--for recognition.
"When you're that young, what do you do, except feel lonely and other things, and then when I was 8 years old and my mother got remarried and all of a sudden everything gets worse. You sit around and watch people in your family get beat."
Poetry as a Tool
The class is poetry. Each of the inmates hunched around a table is serving time in the R. J. Donovan Correctional Facility in the desolate Otay Mesa area of South San Diego. The drab gray buildings and graveled courtyards are full of men who pace, cigarette smoke rising above them like fog. The sense of doom and defeat belies the very real anger that seems to scream and shout from the free-verse explosions coming out of the classroom of teacher-poet Shelley Savren.
The grammar would make most teachers cringe. Rhyming is something the teacher discourages, as well as the men telling her what they're in for. One is in for sexual assault--the crime she fears most. The free-verse feelings--his included--are straight from the heart and the mean streets that bred them well.
Savren's class is part of the arts and corrections program run by Ann Mottola, a 24-year-old artist from Rhode Island who oversees classes in drama, drawing and jewelry making.
The Otay Mesa facility opened last July. Mottola's programs have been running since January. Savren, 38, is wrapping up the second of two eight-week courses. She says the men have changed--they've dug in deeper to the bone of real emotion.
Free verse has been their scalpel.
"You should see a psychiatrist!" Henry Lara shouted at Jennings. "You really should, man. That's weird stuff."
Nate Boner, a tall, sinewy prisoner with a smoky, bourbony voice, leaped quickly to Jennings' defense.
"I think it took a lot of courage to reveal that stuff," Boner said, adding later in an interview that he did it not as a fan of Jennings' but as an admirer of what Jennings wrote and the feeling with which he read it.
Boner, 32, is serving time for first-degree burglary. He's been behind bars in three other "joints" as well, including San Quentin.
'Place to Learn and Grow'
"Prison deprives you," he said. "But it's also a place to learn and grow. Face it, you're here for something that ain't good. If you don't take advantage of the joint while you're here, you just lose. You're gone. You're a dead man."
Boner is also funny.
At one point, Savren defined plagiarism as "copying a poem that isn't yours. You shouldn't do it," she said earnestly. "It's against the law. You can go to jail for it."
"Nawwwwww," Boner said, "you're (bleepin') me? What kind of jail? County jail? Hey, that's a step up."
"It's unethical," she said sternly.
"Unethical? Nawwwww? Well, we can't have that ," Boner said.
Savren's class is a volunteer exercise. No one forces Boner or anyone else to write poetry. He took it because he writes anyway and wanted a respite from a grim existence. Otay Mesa is hardly Vacaville or Folsom, but prison is prison, he said, wherever the barbed-wire canopies are hung:
The nursery where we grow
is a steel-beamed concrete cavern
where we create spring rains of encouragement . ... when we make it rain an activation is unleashed upon the suppressed, encapsulated potential we have within . ... to reach out of our pods and grow!
Boner says Otay Mesa is largely free of racial tension, the sting of which he's experienced in every other "joint" where he's laid his bones.
"This place does leave room for hope," he said, "if only because there ain't as much violence going on. There is some, though."
During the 2 1/2-hour class, which meets once a week, Boner reached up and plucked a spider from midair, attaching it and its stringy web to an electrical outlet dangling from the ceiling.
At the time, Savren was reading a poem by C.W. Merwin in which "the smell of dew" is mentioned.
"Smell of doom?" Boner asked.
"No, dew ," she corrected. "As in dew on the grass."
Boner looked confused, as though "smell of doom" was a hell of a lot wiser to the verse of the street.
Working Through Problems
As a victim of child abuse, Jennings said the class had done nothing less than to exorcise his personal demons.