There is a flurry of activity as UW-Madison graduate students Ray Hsu, 28, and Marianne Erhardt, 25, walk into the small classroom at Oakhill Correctional Institution, right off Highway M in Oregon. Several inmates wait inside, holding folders of loose-leaf paper, two with guitars in their hands. This is the weekly creative-writing group that meets every Monday at Oakhill, and facilitators Hsu and Erhardt are a few minutes late.
"I was afraid you weren't coming," says Jack (whose name is changed for privacy reasons, as are the names of all the inmates used in this article). Six other eager inmates stand around, warmly greeting each other.
The program is part of a larger effort to promote literacy among inmates and help them pass high school equivalency tests. It's a joint effort of the UW's Humanities Exposed, which encourages graduate students to create community-outreach programs, and Community Connections, an organization that provides Oakhill with volunteers.
Last September, Hsu and Erhardt posted fliers around the minimum-security prison, attracting eight inmates to the first creative-writing meeting. Since then, the number has fluctuated between five and 15 from week to week, with new faces appearing as the group is advertised by word of mouth. The writing group meets during evening free time, 6:30 till 8:30.
"Are you going to play your blues song tonight?" one man asks another as they grab chairs from a stack against the wall. An inmate, Roger, says he's finished writing his second novel and has started on a third. Wes, a new member, seems surprised.
"I started writing a book too. I've got, like, 70 pages. Can I bring that in here?" he asks Hsu, who calmly responds, "Of course."
The group of writers sit at a small table, and Erhardt plays a CD of improv poetry. Many of the men bow their heads in concentration, and some take notes on lines that strike them.
Next the group begins a collaborative exercise, creating a poem by adding one word at a time and then passing it to the next writer. The resulting poems are diverse - funny, nonsensical and serious. The rest of the time is devoted to sharing and critiquing pieces the inmates have written on their own time. Self-reflexive and mature, they deal with love, loss, forgiveness, redemption and acceptance. The writers offer each other supportive feedback.
Hsu remarks on the depth of this work. He says he learns as much from the inmates as he does from the undergrads he works with at UW-Madison. "The inmates have such unique experiences to draw from," he says. "You just can't get that kind of knowledge anywhere else."
Erhardt says the group's feedback has influenced her own writing. "I see this as mutually beneficial for me and for them," she says.
She and Hsu don't want to know about the inmates' crimes. They're adamant about seeing these men as writers.
"It's important in the space of the group for them to be labeled as writers," Hsu says. "There are so many other opportunities for them to be labeled something else."
Jack Rice, the education director of Oakhill, is grateful for these literacy groups, and he knows the prisoners are too. "One thing that the prison system has going for it is an adult education experience," he says. "They're not teenagers who don't want to go to school. The adults in our prisons want to go to school for myriad reasons."
Rice sees Oakhill as a unique correctional institution in that it has its own organization devoted to volunteer staffing needs, along with access to the UW's resources. He stresses the importance of education in the incarceration experience.
"The average stay here is seven months," he says, "so they are going back into their communities very quickly, and we need to help them assimilate."
When the workshop is done for the night, the men slowly stack the plastic chairs against the wall. They walk past the guards at the door with Hsu and Erhardt.
The inmates continue to talk about the pieces shared in the last two hours, offering more suggestions for next week. Hsu and Erhardt have a hard time leaving the group behind as well.
"Week after week, we never stop reflecting and being in awe of every single Monday," says Hsu. "We haven't gotten dull to it, and I don't know if we ever would."