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Inmates find solace in writing program

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Rachel Martinez’s life has been a cycle – of drug abuse and incarceration – since she was left on her own as a child.

“My first shot of heroin was at 10 years old,” she said. “That’s all I’ve ever known.”

At 41, Martinez now turns to the pen for guidance.

Martinez is one of a dozen women packed into a bare, makeshift classroom at the county jail to do something prisoners say is not easy behind bars – express themselves.

The workshop is put on through JustWrite, a nonprofit that brings creative expression in the form of poetry, spoken word and journaling to both male and female inmates at the Metropolitan Detention Center as well as other detention centers around the state.

“I been through a lot. … This helps me to heal myself,” Martinez said.

Diahndra Grill holds an inmate’s writing to share with the class during a workshop at the Metropolitan Detention Center. (Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal)

JustWrite co-founder Diahndra Grill hands out paper and pencils to each inmate and writes two prompts: “Freedom is …” and “I’m at my best when …” on a dry erase board.

“Writing and creating is a survival strategy and a way to recreate the world as we know it, to transcend and transform as individuals,” Grill said. “I am just facilitating a process. I’m taking in pen and paper and they’re really doing the work.”

For the next 15 minutes, the room is quiet – except for the scraping of pencils against paper and an occasional murmur – as inmates write using Grill’s prompts as a jumping off point. They can also choose to write anything they wish, the choice is theirs – in a place without many choices.

Tristin Routzen pumps his fist, letting Diahndra Grill know that he appreciates all she does for Metropolitan Detention Center inmates. Routzen is also a very talented artist.

Inmate Tristin Routzen softly asks to read his poem.

The paper shakes in his hand as the 25-year-old reads, but his voice remains firm:

“I walk for miles with nowhere to go, I felt every bit of that wind that got cold, I heard many stories from the young and the old. I asked them where they’re going and they said I don’t know.”

The cramped room explodes with applause, a few inmates snap their fingers like it’s a poetry slam in any coffee shop. Routzen lets loose a grin as cheers and hollers bounce off the thick walls around him.

Several other inmates read their work, and every time the recital ends with the same feverish encouragement from the others.

One inmate, Johnny Barela, 46, holds his pencil rigidly over the paper.

He doesn’t know what to write. Barela said he is about to be released and he is nervous what awaits him outside those walls.

On the other side of the jail, the women tell Grill they’ve been looking forward to her visit all week.

Mindi Sargent, 46, asks Grill what a slam poem is and Grill happily obliges, acting out a spirited rendition of a poem Sargent hands her.

Bree, a Metropolitan Detention Center inmate who is transgender, writes during a class exercise.

Two women, one of them clutching a binder bursting with pages, hand Grill a rough draft of a children’s book they’ve written. They want to try to get it published and ask if she can edit it for them.

Then it is time for the prompts and free write – some of the women whisper and giggle like classmates as others write silently.

Rachel Trujillo, 30, writes:

“Freedom is happiness. Freedom is sobriety in your mind body and soul. Talk is cheap, what my peers say. Freedom is action beyond doubt. Freedom is loving myself the third time around.”

The women all clap and whistle.

MDC Chaplain Quinton Fletcher sits in on the workshop and listens intently as several of the women read aloud.

“I don’t see orange when I see you. I see human beings,” Fletcher said. “There’s never an expiration date on your purpose. No matter how many times you stumble, you’re on your way.”

A positive outlet

The performances and topics vary widely. Some inmates rap about the “good ol’ days,” others read poetry about the mistakes they’ve made, feeling safe locked away from old haunts and waiting demons, but all of them express a longing for their families and freedom on the outside.

Their words touch on regret, fear, joy and everything in between.

“They’re being present in it, they’re being vulnerable,” Grill said. “Which is so courageous.”

Eric Gutierrez, 31, said he was skeptical when he joined the workshop a month ago – but has since helped him open up.

“I think it brings out a lot of feelings that pushed to the back of the mind,” he said. “It helps us get to know each other. We really don’t know who we are sleeping next to until we hear their deep feelings.”

Noe Tijerina, 60, said writing helps him channel frustrations in a positive way.

“Put ugliness in a page, instead of carrying it or sending it to somebody through a look,” he said.

Earlier in the day Tijerina said he had a discussion with the District Attorney’s Office that did not go his way – so he sat down and wrote a poem.

“It got the ugliness out of me, so whew, I got a breath of fresh air,” he said.

Diane Small, 45, said she previously spent 11 years in a state penitentiary in Arizona.

“I realized my life was out of control and I really needed to understand some things about myself,” she said. “I had to figure out, who was I?”

Small said she picked up the pen for answers, learning to make her “mess” into her “message.”

“There’s such a stigma when it comes to inmates – but we’re just people, too,” she said. “The only way to let people know that we’re not just ‘the left behind’ is to get that out there.”

Voices rarely heard

Diahndra Grill, who runs workshops at the Metropolitan Detention Center, collects writing material for a Tuesday afternoon class.

Grill started JustWrite along with Carlos Contreras and the two have been working with inmates around the state since 2012.

“These folks are most disproportionately impacted by inequalities and this is where we feel we can be the most effective,” she said. “We wanted to create inclusive, safe, supportive spaces, for those without that access and from whom we don’t often hear from to tell their stories.”

Throughout that time, Grill said she finds herself constantly inspired by the amazing works inmates create and share that often touch on addiction, domestic violence, poverty, and other matters that affect society as a whole.

“It is a very powerful and meaningful experience,” she said. “There is nothing better than being a small part of someone’s journey in realizing their self-worth and connecting to a part of themselves they never knew or forgot existed.”

Grill said JustWrite focuses on jails and prisons because the communities within don’t have access to resources that help them express themselves – but the work doesn’t end there.

She said JustWrite partners with other organizations to offer opportunities for inmates to publish and showcase their work outside jail.

Grill said she stays in continuous contact with inmates and JustWrite holds workshops on the outside that inmates can transition into once they are released.

“Being able to share your feelings and share what you’ve been through … reflect on where you’ve been and where you are and where you’re going … is such a powerful process in a facility where there are absolutely no freedoms,” she said. “It is opening up to a different kind of freedom of the mind.”

Before Grill leaves for the day, she writes two prompts on the board for next week: “the people I love …” and “my pain comes from …”

The women make a fuss about the lack of positivity so Grill makes an exception and writes a third: “I hope …” – with which they are satisfied.

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