Renee Winter teaches poetry to men incarcerated in the Santa Cruz Main Jail
Renee Winter teaches poetry at the Santa Cruz Jail
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
Opinion from Community Voices

I teach poetry in the Santa Cruz jail, but it’s ‘my guys’ who are teaching me

Renee Winter started teaching poetry in the Santa Cruz Main Jail seven years ago, after retiring from her law practice. Now, once a week, she sits in a locked room with about 15 incarcerated men. She often marvels at how her “big-knuckled, burly male students can grip such tiny tools and write. But they do.” Not once in all her years, she says, has she had to press the panic button. Instead, she has found inspiration and shed her “one-dimensional” view of incarceration.

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An excerpt from the poem “From Rountree a Poet is Born” by Justin Marc

Jail time

The small, rectangular green sign announcing the entrance to the Santa Cruz Main Jail off Water Street in downtown Santa Cruz is obscured by a marquee for Classic Vapor Cleaners.

I drove past this sign almost daily for years, too busy rushing to my law office or muttering about the long left-turn light to notice it, much less the low-rise facility set back from the busy downtown thoroughfare.

Now I drive by and wonder how my guys are doing.

Jails are typically tucked away, planted out of the public’s sight. They are alien worlds of automatic locks and absolute restrictions. Before I started teaching there, my impressions — shaped by cops-and-robbers TV shows — included wayward men and women sitting on cots, huddled in a yard, or at work making the proverbial license plates.


Now I know better. Because of poetry.

The Santa Cruz Main Jail is a maximum-security facility and anyone arrested within the county passes through it: alleged drunk drivers, drug dealers, sex offenders, gang members, murderers. Fathers, mothers, daughters, sons, spouses. Some are awaiting trial, others sentencing. Still others are en route to prison. The luckier ones are counting the number of days until their release. Some have been inside for years.

Quite a few enroll in my poetry class.

Justin Marc, a formerly incarcerated man, writes during a poetry class at the downtown Santa Cruz library


Poets Ellen Bass and Nancy Miller Gomez founded the Santa Cruz Poetry Project in 2014; currently, the program offers six weekly “Power in Poetry” classes throughout the Santa Cruz County corrections system.

Poetry is a “milestone course,” and students receive certificates of achievement after 12 classes, which helps document productive behavior. Three certificates may help secure a sentence reduction.

The Santa Cruz Poetry Project also offers a poetry workshop at the downtown library for released men and women who wish to continue their writing practice along with members of the community. The project has seven volunteer teachers but is always looking for more. We also publish our students’ poems in anthologies that can be found on the shelves of the Santa Cruz and Watsonville public libraries.

The 13th volume was released this year. A new one will be released in the fall.

The program also hosts poetry jams, where students read their poems to an audience of fellow residents, jail staff and local poets.

For more information, click here.

— Renee Winter

I’m a volunteer in the Santa Cruz Poetry Project, which means I go into the jail every week to bring poetry and writing to men (women have separate classes) in this underserved and sometimes misunderstood population.

I started doing this when I retired from my corporate law practice seven years ago and after I had attended my share of nonprofit board meetings. I was eager to embrace a hands-on activity. Seeing a 2016 post in Santa Cruz poet laureate Ellen Bass’ newsletter seeking volunteer poetry teachers, I responded immediately.

Teaching and writing are two of my favorite activities. I just never imagined doing them while locked up.

Lobby time

When I walk into my class at the Main Jail, I’m greeted by a monotony of gray — concrete walls, floors, ceilings.

Anyone entering the jails must conform to strict procedures. I leave my purse, iPhone and laptop in the trunk of my car next to empty Trader Joe’s bags and my yoga mat.

I bring only a clear Ziploc bag filled with loose papers and cloth-bound composition books. Staples, pen cases, pencils, and paper clips are all considered contraband. In a jail setting, I learn, everyday objects are considered potential weapons.

I sign an attendance log, slide my car keys and driver’s license under the glass partition to the receptionist, and receive in exchange a generic visitor’s badge, class list and packet with two markers and five naked pen cartridges.

I often marvel how my big-knuckled, burly male students can grip such tiny tools and write. But they do.

The Main Jail lobby is a study of incongruities. A muted, flat-screen TV offers a silenced Home Shopping Network with closed captions. Outdated magazines strewn on a side table include copies of Golf Digest.

Renee Winter teaches poetry to men incarcerated in the Santa Cruz Main Jail
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

My first weeks there, I assumed few sitting in these worn vinyl and metal-framed lobby chairs were regulars on the links. That was among the first of my many wrong assumptions.

Waiting for my escort, I usually reassess my outfit to assure compliance with the dress code. No open-toed shoes. No above-the-knee skirts. No gang colors. I often choose low heels, black skirt and a gray blouse. Spartan, but professional. Jeans are allowed, but I want to show my students I take them and my task seriously.

Still waiting for the guard, on my first visit, I turned my wedding ring around to obscure the diamonds and tiny rubies. Was I embarrassed by my own riches in so sparse a setting?

Class time

“Poetry! Recreation! Peace United!”

A uniformed man calls us from the lobby to our classes. I stand and join a reverend and a chiseled-looking woman carrying a box of yoga mats.

We walk through an airport-like security screener. The guard is tall, bulky and middle-aged, with a smile that lessens my fear of the holster strapped to his waist. A sliding door rumbles open and we enter a windowless hallway yielding a musty smell of sweat and confinement.

No potted plants warm the path. My shoes click on scuffed hard tile as I follow the guard into one of two classrooms.

“I’ll go get the guys,” he tells me, then calls ahead for the unit. The door locks behind me.

I’m alone in a room I can’t get out of.

Stacks of plastic chairs cover two walls.

Another wall is half-window, exposing a shadowed hallway. In the middle of the room stands a wooden table about half the size of those found in boardrooms where I used to negotiate deals. But there’s no polished mahogany, carved trim or crystal pitcher and glasses here.

How out of context am I?

Justin Marc, who was formerly incarcerated in a Santa Cruz County jail, writes during a poetry class at the downtown library.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Soon the scuffle of shoes and mumblings of voices approach. About 15 men in orange jumpsuits over khaki T-shirts traipse in, appearing to be in their 20s and 30s, except for the gray-haired guy they call “Grandpa.” Each grabs a chair.

Scraping noises cascade as the men scoot them into place at the table.

This group is made up of “dropouts,” not from high school, but from gangs. Some remind me of my daughter’s high school buddies. Some are tattooed on every spot of exposed skin; others are devoid of any markings.

Men sporting ponytails, man-buns, cornrows, buzz cuts and bald heads stare back at me. Most are smiling.

“It must be scary to be in a room of 15 men, especially in a jail!” a baby-faced inmate says as he greets me that first day. His dark brown cowlicked hair conjures up the 1960s “Leave it to Beaver” star.

Does this young man notice my eyes searching for the red panic button staff has assured me is available in every room? (I find it next to the light switch. I’ll never, in all my teaching years, need to use it.)

“Don’t worry. We were selected from the whole jail population,” adds a Chris Pratt lookalike. “We’re the cream of the crop.”

I laugh and begin to relax.

Another student raises his hand. “So is this class going to help me write about my emotions in my letters to my mom?” His voice is commanding, like a radio announcer’s and demanding the audience’s attention.

“Sure,” I answer, not having thought at all about such a goal.

I begin to hear myself talking about metaphors and similes, sensory imagery, topics we’d be studying. My answer feels inadequate, like a crayon being offered to a man desiring to paint a masterpiece.

I make a note to bring in Raymond Carver’s “Fear” the following week.

Volumes of the Santa Cruz Poetry Project's anthologies of student poetry
The Santa Cruz Poetry Project publishes anthologies of its students’ work; the 13th volume was published earlier this year and the next is due out this fall.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

And so the weeks and years have passed. My guys often teaching me more than I can teach them — erasing my early notions of who they were, what they need.

Each week I bring in poems for discussion, and the poems serve as prompts for the students’ own poetry. They write about gang tattoos they want to laser off. About drug deals that provided grandma’s rent money. Their words describe missed Little League games and the truck accident on Highway 17 that killed the father, but spared the son.

Their verses detail the addictions they hate. Their beasts. Their poems reveal what they once were: high school football star, professional soccer player, sous-chef, lawyer, wine sommelier. Users. Dealers. Some write about how they can’t look in the mirror.

Sometimes they write about poetry class.

We read Dorianne Laux’s list poem, “What’s Broken.” A., his muscular neck arms covered with illustrations, whispers his first contribution: “What’s broken? My backbone.” He hangs his head, colorful insignias covering his cheeks, his forehead.

Librarian Jesse Silva regularly delivers books and library programs to the more than 300 people currently incarcerated...

We discuss Robert Frost’s classic “The Road Not Taken,” and C. writes, “To think that I once stuck needles into my arm.”

After Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” J., the student who requested the poem, rolled up his pant leg, revealing a tattoo of the black bird the length of his calf.

“I love them! Had one as a pet,” he gushes. We laugh with him.

I bring “Cloudy Day,” a poem about a prison yard by heralded poet Jimmy Santiago Baca, a Latino-Native American who taught himself to read and write while incarcerated as a teenager for drug possession.

“Your writing prompt — the short topic of this next assignment — is ‘the yard at Main Jail,’” I tell the students. Then add, “if you choose to use it. If not, you choose the topic.”

Just so they write.

The quiet of their writing fills the stark classroom. J. is eager to share his “Rainy Day,” written in Spanish and S. willingly translates. The poem describes the drops of water on the windows facing the yard, the trees swaying, and how the inmates huddle around the barred glass, jockeying for a view.

The yard is off-limits during inclement weather, J. explains to me. He then touches his cheek, as his words describe the memory of feeling raindrops on his face.

We’re silent. Then the guys snap their fingers and yell, “Bravo. Way to go, man.”

Their stories have continued — new students, new writing. Week after week. Year after year.

And in the process, I have become their student, as I let go of my earlier one-dimensional notion of incarceration and the individuals who walk inside that world.

They may choose to write about the circumstances that landed them in that cell or not. I certainly don’t ask.

What matters is the person sitting in that plastic chair in that classroom on that day, experiencing — some as novices, some as college graduates — the power of the written word.

One student might have articulated it best in last week’s class: “Out there we have to wear a mask. In here, we can be ourselves. We can express our feelings. That’s why I come to class.”

And maybe that’s why I come to class, too.

Editor’s note: Lookout has agreed to identify these men by initials to protect their privacy.

Renee Winter has been a volunteer teacher in the Santa Cruz Poetry Project since she retired from her law practice in 2016. Her personal essays have appeared in literary journals such as Catamaran, Memoir Magazine, Exposition Review, The London Reader, 34th Parallel, HerStry and Coachella Review. She has lived in Santa Cruz for 19 years with her husband, Paul Roth, distinguished professor of philosophy at UCSC. They have two daughters, two granddaughters, and one white, rescue poodle mix. For more information about the Santa Cruz Poetry Project “Poetry in the Jails,” click here. The William James Association is the project’s fiscal sponsor.