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Our instructors come from a variety of backgrounds. Some are retired teachers and some have never taught before. Some are poets and some are not. But we all have a passion for poetry and a strong commitment to our mission: to help people find their voices, and tap into their creativity and individuality.


Like our teachers, our participants also come from a variety of backgrounds. But one thing they all share is a strong desire to express themselves and tell their stories, to dig deep for self-understanding, and to develop the self-awareness that will help them with life outside and wherever their path takes them. Much of the programming our participants get while incarcerated is geared toward the practical side of life outside; our programs help them with their inner lives.

Please consider volunteering! Prior teaching experience is absolutely not required. Contact us for more information.

Our Volunteers

Ellen Bass is a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets. Her poetry includes, Like a Beggar (Copper Canyon Press, 2014),  The Human Line (Copper Canyon Press, 2007) and Mules of Love (BOA Editions, 2002). She co-edited (with Florence Howe) the first major anthology of women’s poetry, No More Masks! (Doubleday, 1973). Among her many awards are Fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts and the California Arts Council, the Lambda Literary Award, and three Pushcart Prizes. She has also published non-fiction books, including The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse. Ellen served as Poet Laureate of Santa Cruz from 2014-2016, and has been named the 2019 Artist of the Year by the Santa Cruz County Arts Commission. Ellen's most recent book of poems, Indigo, was published in early 2022, .

Ellen founded poetry workshops at Salinas Valley State Prison and the Santa Cruz, CA jails. She currently teaches in the low residency MFA writing program at Pacific University.

Nancy Miller Gomez co-founded the Santa Cruz Poetry Project and the Poetry in Jails Program
with Ellen Bass to bring poetry workshops to incarcerated women and men in Santa Cruz
County. She has a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing with an emphasis in poetry from
Pacific University. Her work has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including Best
American Poetry 2021, Best New Poets 2021, The Adroit Journal, New Ohio Review, Alaska
Quarterly Review, Shenandoah, River Styx, The Rumpus, Rattle, Massachusetts Review, The
Hopkins Review, American Life in Poetry, Verse Daily, and elsewhere. She received a Pushcart
Prize special mention in 2023. Her chapbook, Punishment, was published as part of the Rattle
chapbook series. Her first full length collection of poems is forthcoming in 2024 from YesYes
Books. As the former director of the Poetry in Jails program - she remains actively involved as a
volunteer. More at:

Renee Winter, Director of Santa Cruz Poetry Projecct, is a writer who concentrates on memoir. Her essays have been published in the 2016 anthology, Tales of our Lives, Reflection Pond;  and in the literary journals The Coachella Review; Phren-z, and Qu. Another essay is forthcoming in Exposition Review. Renee presented at the 2016 Celebration of the Muse, an event honoring women writers in the Santa Cruz area. A retired attorney, Renee practiced law for over 35 years. Renee has enjoyed teaching in the Poetry Project at the Santa Cruz County Main Jail and Rountree Medium Facility since July, 2016 and has hosted poetry jams at the Main Jail, Rountree, and R&R, both live and via Zoom!

Deb Culmer, Co-director Emeritus of Santa Cruz Poetry Project, is an aspiring poet, formerly employed by UC Santa Cruz Observatories. She has been writing poetry on and off since age 17, and has been involved in volunteer work at the Santa Cruz County Jail since 2013. A series of happy coincidences brought her into the Santa Cruz Poetry Project, where she has been teaching women's and men's classes since early 2016. 


Hello all, my name is Anthony Sanchez and I'm a recent UC Davis Undergraduate receiving my Bachelors in Sociology and a Minor in Chicano History class of 2022. I'm excited to be a part of this team and organization that engages the voices/opinions of those that are often ignored and discounted. I've grown up around gangs, drugs, and incarceration since adolescence and I know I can connect to many of those in the system because of relatable life experiences. I believe what matters is not what an individual does in their past that landed them behind bars, but how they can dig deep down and unlock the unseen talents and skills that show their true character. I look forward to bringing my own unique history, and flow of poems and teaching to facilitate lively conversations and create a space where individuals feel safe and comfortable to open up. 

Heather Duffy has worked extensively in the technology industry, holding a variety of technical, process, and communications roles. She writes creatively, focused on poetry and essays, exploring and expressing her curiosity about the natural world. Heather joined the Santa Cruz Poetry Project in 2022, facilitating classes and learning from the poets at the Rountree facility. She currently teaches a weekly class at the Main Jail.

Dana Crow appreciates the influence, inspiration, and help of other poets like Danusha Laméris, Ellen Bass, and Farnaz Fatemi. She enjoys conveying that ‘poetry love’ to others, and is grateful for the experience of learning from the students at Main Jail and Blaine Street. She’s currently working on an MFA in Poetry from Pacific.  University.

Emeritus Volunteers


Volunteer Emeritus Nicole Sibena Ticea is graduate of Stanford University. Over the years she has dabbled with poetry, screenwriting, and prose; at present, she is writing a sci-fi novel bringing together her interests in science, society, and the criminal justice system. Nicole got involved with the Santa Cruz Poetry Project through a series of happy coincidences and now counts herself extremely lucky to work with such exceptional students. You can see her Ted talk here!

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Volunteer Emeritus Nestor Walters was born in Bangladesh, raised in Greece, and served ten years in the US Navy. He now studies mathematics and writes for his school paper at Stanford University. Find him at


Volunteer Emeritus Sally Neas is an essayist, journalist, lover of poetry and, most recently, a graduate student. She currently teaches writing at UC Davis.

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Volunteer Emeritus Olivia Gatwood is a writer, performer, and educator from Albuquerque, New Mexico. She is the author of two books, Life of the Party and New American Best Friend, and tours internationally performing her poems in mostly punk venues.  

The late Robert Sward, friend and volunteer teacher, was born on the Jewish North Side of Chicago, bar mitzvahed, sailor, amnesiac, university professor (Cornell, Iowa, Connecticut College), newspaper editor, food reviewer, father of five children, husband to four wives. His writing career was described by critic Virginia Lee as a "long and winding road." In addition to his writings, Volunteer Emeritus Robert taught classes and led workshops on memoir and autobiography at UC Santa Cruz, Cabrillo College, Esalen, and elsewhere, including as a volunteer at Louden Nelson Senior Community Center in Santa Cruz. We mourn the passing of Robert in 2022, he will be fondly remembered by his words, and by his deeds. 

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