YACOLT — Broken homes. Lost loves. Tragic accidents. Drugs and pain.
In the chapel of Larch Corrections Center on Thursday, nine inmates shared stories, poems and essays at the inaugural Language Arts for Healing class’s graduation. With guidance from a team of seven Pacific Northwest writers, the men in the class spent 16 weeks honing their writing skills while sharing their stories with their peers — a chance to be open in a world defined by walls.
“It’s not that simple for the guys to sit down and be open,” said prison Chaplain Zilvinas Jakstas, who leads the prison’s Art for Healing program. “I’m pleased; they as a group achieved a lot.”
Garth Stein, author of New York Times best-seller “The Art of Racing in the Rain,” and co-founder of writing collective Seattle7Writers, helped facilitate and coach the inmates in the program. Stein said part of his mission as an author is to “energize reading and writing,” building a population that values those skills. But with inmates, there are added bonuses — developing dedication to sit down and work on a project for hours, listening to and accepting constructive criticism, being vulnerable — that will serve them when they’ve been released from prison.
“You have to create a protective space to share,” Stein said.
Perry Delaney is in prison on assault and kidnapping charges dating back to 1996. He’ll be eligible for release in 2020, he said, and is ready to set his past behind him — in part thanks to the writing class.
In his essay, Delaney described his father’s drug addiction, and an occasion his father traded his favorite toy, a model KITT from the 1980s television series “Knight Rider,” for heroin. Delaney described the heartbreak his father caused him and his family, but also reflected on how it led him on his own path to crime.
“My father’s son through and through,” he read. “No better, no worse.”
The class has been therapeutic, he said, helping him process his childhood and opening fresh conversations with his mother about their shared experiences.
“It’s good for your heart,” he said. “A lot of this stuff hardens people to a degree. We don’t want to get out on the street and have a hard heart.”
Theron Taylor was writing long before the class. He’s already compiled two books in his preferred medium: poetry.
Between his writing and his Christian faith, Taylor said he’s been “purified and refined” during his 16 years in prison.
“I needed to look inside myself and change,” said Taylor, who is serving a sentence on assault charges. He’s scheduled to be released in two months.
Sharing his poetry with other inmates has built on that.
“It’s given me a whole world where I’m speaking with people,” he said. “It’s given me a new life.”
At one point during the graduation ceremony, Jakstas clapped inmate Tyler Ware on the shoulder.
“I didn’t expect this guy to come in here,” he said.
And it’s easy to understand why, looking at Ware, who was featured in Washington’s Most Wanted for a series of drug and illegal firearm possession crimes. Standing at 6-foot-5-inches with a diamond tattooed on his cheek, Ware read a story of “hearts broken” and “dreams shattered” about a previous girlfriend.
“I’ve always been an open book,” Ware confesses.
Ware has written music before, but never stories, he said. The Language Arts for Healing class, however, has given him an opportunity to explore a newfound talent — and potentially, he hopes, a future career.
“These guys really encouraged me,” he said of his classmates and instructors. “I’ve learned a lot about myself.”