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Prison Writing

Founded in 1971, the PEN Prison Writing Program believes in the restorative, rehabilitative power of writing and provides hundreds of inmates across the country with skilled writing teachers and audiences for their work. It provides a place for inmates to express themselves freely and encourages the use of the written word as a legitimate form of power.

PEN's Prison Writing Program sponsors an annual writing contest, publishes a free Handbook for Writers In Prison, provides one-on-one mentoring to inmates, conducts workshops, and seeks to promote inmates' work publicly through literary publications and readings.

Handbook for Writers
in Prison

PEN’s Handbook for Writers in Prison features detailed guides on the art of writing fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and screenplays—an invaluable resource for any incarcerated writer. Each year, thousands of free copies of the Handbook for Writers in Prison are sent to incarcerated men and women who request a copy.


Click here to request you copy of the Handbook for Writers in Prison or purchase one on behalf of an incarcerated person.

Annual Prison
Writing Contest

Every year hundreds of inmates from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population. Manuscripts come to us in a variety of forms: some are handwritten, some are typed, some are written in the margins of legal documents. 

>> Contest Guidelines

>> Winners of the 2013 Prison Writing Contest

>> Winners Archive

Mentoring Program

Consisting of more than seventy mentors working with close to one hundred inmates, PEN's Mentor Program continues to be the most interactive and engaging project in the Prison Writing Program.

>> Find out more

Featured Prison Writing

July 16, 2013

They are girls in buffalo stances, / that dance for men...

July 16, 2013

Murder is typically a desperate crime committed by...

July 16, 2013

When the guard takes his seat, the bus begins its...

July 16, 2013

Even the legend of the two self-garroters varied...

August 2, 2013

Most people will never experience, and never really...

July 16, 2013

I have a little yellow plastic bead shaped like an...

August 6, 2013

The maximum-security prison was a depraved place, a...

July 16, 2013

Thirty-nine inches from tip to tip, / it must have...

July 16, 2013

How can I communicate what it is like to get arrested...