For more than a year, inmates at the Cumberland County Jail in Bridgeton have channeled their inner emotions into an unorthodox but therapeutic form: poetry.
Under the guidance of a retired English teacher, roughly 60 incarcerated men and women who make up two work groups have turned to the written word as a way to express a wide range of feelings _ including regret and sorrow.
"It's something that occupies their time in a positive way, to take their mind away from boredom,'' Warden Bob Balicki told The Daily Journal of Vineland. "It helps them escape.''
With work sessions led by instructor Dave Murphy, the inmates are able to let their minds drift away from the confines of concrete cells to the most surreal parts of their imaginations.
"It seems to be a very valuable outlet for them,'' Murphy noted. "I was stunned by the energy, the emotion and the power of some of the poetry. It has changed them.''
Murphy taught high school English for 25 years and currently teaches at both Atlantic Cape Community College and Temple University. He volunteered to read poetry as well as help inmates with their own writing.
"They've been very enthusiastic,'' Murphy said. "They've done some bad things, but they've been genuine with me. It's a way of making up for wrongs for them.''
Inmate Jose Heredia listened as Murphy read aloud Heredia's poem, "A New Chance To Live.'' The inmate said writing the poem _ which showed a longing for redemption and a second chance _ helped him connect with his emotions.
"It's good to just open up and share my feelings.''
The roughly two-hour sessions Murphy has with each group generally entail readings of selected prison-themed poems _ works with which he believes the inmates can connect _ as well as work-shopping their writing.
Many of the inmates are given writing assignments by email before Murphy arrives at the Bridgeton jail. Some of them included writing about early childhood memories, as well as more abstract themes.
"I'll have them write a poem about a crack in a concrete wall or a ceiling,'' Murphy explained. "And then they have to add one of the four elements to it _ the building blocks of the universe _ whether it be earth, water, air or fire.''
Murphy said some of the inmates' poetry has revealed feelings of guilt for crimes committed, as well as blame assigned to their families.
"I see a lot of `Mom, where were you? Dad, where were you? Why can't I be there for my children?' " Murphy stated. "They seem to have expressed the ideas of having missed the guidance of one parent or the other. And they feel guilty for not being there for their children.''
Balicki said that he was surprised when he read some of his inmates' writings.
"It's some pretty deep stuff. Some people who have done some very bad things still have something salvageable inside of them.''
Murphy credits Balicki for the program, which he called visionary.
"It gets them interested in reading, so I don't see any downside to that,'' the warden said. "It's something that heads them into the right direction.
"It's not just about punishment here, it's to rehabilitate them. Reading and writing are important when you're trying to find a job.''