Every Thursday, Candida Ulibarri looks forward to the time she spends in a conference room at the Tulsa Jail.
Ulibarri, along with about 25 other women, shuffles into the small meeting room located in her housing block, and for two hours, she feels as if she’s somewhere else.
“It doesn’t feel like jail,” Ulibarri said. “It’s like every Thursday, we’re gone.”
Ulibarri, 32, attends the weekly Poetic Justice writing workshops, which aim to empower women affected by incarceration. The classes encourage women to express themselves through poems and letters.
The workshops focus on giving women tools they can use to transform their lives when they are released, said Ellen Stackable, executive director of Poetic Justice.
Oklahoma led the nation in women’s incarceration in 2014, according to the latest national data available through Bureau of Justice Statistics. And most incarcerated women have experienced some kind of abuse, Stackable said.
“The goal is to give women a voice because if you have a sense of your voice, you have a sense of your own worth,” Stackable said. “And if you believe that you matter, then you have hope. If you have hope, it empowers you to change.”
During the classes, women write reflective poems, such as what they’re thankful for and letters to their younger selves. Although the classes are full of hope and laughter, they are also filled with tears.
Poetic Justice volunteers work with women who rarely have had opportunities to feel heard, valued or to express themselves, said Hanna Al-Jibouri, Poetic Justice volunteer and board member.
“I feel like with them, even more so, poetry and writing is seen as therapeutic,” Al-Jibouri said. “And it is seen as this release that’s been bottled up for years, if not the majority of their lives.”
Ulibarri agrees. She said the classes have helped her express herself, build self-esteem and connect with peers.
“My ex broke my tooth, and I was self-conscious because I used to have a beautiful smile,” Ulibarri said. “But I’m not ashamed anymore. It’s a healing experience.”
For Ulibarri, the classes have sparked a passion for writing and self expression, she said. She plans to continue exploring poetry when she is released.
Poetic Justice volunteers hope to expand classes so women can continue with the program after incarceration, Stackable said. Volunteers also plan to start a program at Eddie Warrior Correctional Center and eventually, the Oklahoma County Jail, she said.
“Part of my goal is to have a model that’s sustainable and replicable that we could keep going even if I’m not there to do it,” Stackable said. “Other people could do it if they wanted to start a program somewhere else.”
At the end of the five-week class, the women celebrate with a graduation ceremony, where they receive a journal that contains the class’ poems.
“Some of these women tell me it’s their first time graduating from anything,” Stackable said. “We tell them, ‘You’re a published poet now.’”
More than 500 women have participated in workshops, Stackable said. The nonprofit holds classes at David L. Moss and Turley Correctional Center in Tulsa and soon, Mabel Bassett Correctional Center in McLoud.
“Writing has the power to change people’s lives,” Stackable said. “Ultimately, it’s about lighting a spark inside them that could turn into a flame, and they could actually have power to change their lives and not keep coming back to jail over and over again.”
Spoken Word Poetry event
Workshop with Lauren Zuniga: 5-6 p.m. Spoken Word Event: 6:30 p.m.
When: 5 p.m., Friday
Where: 2952 S. Peoria Ave.
Tickets are $20 for the workshop and $8 for the spoken word event at brownpaperticket.com.
The Spoken Word Event is included for workshop ticketholders. All proceeds benefit Poetic Justice.