close up of $100 bills

Starling Thomas was awarded Second Prize in Drama in the 2019 Prison Writing Contest.

Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population. On September 18, PEN America will celebrate the winners of this year’s contest with a live reading at the Brooklyn Book Festival, BREAK OUT: A 2019 PEN America Prison Writing Awards Celebration.

A Short Play


CHI: Early Thirties, African American, in year 10 of a 45-year drug conspiracy sentence. Strives to live by her own moral code and doesn’t trust the system.

KAYLA: Mid-twenties, Caucasian, a recovering drug addict, serving a four-month sentence for trafficking illegals. Naive to the prison world, always sees the good in people and searching for a friend.

GUARD: Man, late forties, indifferent to system. Works for the prison because he couldn’t get a job anywhere else and only there to collect a check.


A two-man prison hold-over cell, during the time of mass incarceration in America.


Sometime in the Millennial.

The lights come up as Chi sits quietly in the cell reading over her legal paperwork, humming and rapping to a beat inside her head. Chi is a stunning woman who has become a hardened prisoner and believes the system is meant to keep all black people captive. She’s been handed down a 45-year sentence for conspiracy to sell crack cocaine. Her family has deserted her and she has no one but herself. Chi has been waiting for the United States marshals to pick her up for two months. Chi has made the cell her home and hopes they will come and pick her up any day to take her to her designated prison. Her hair is braided back and she wears her prison attire extra baggie. Her diction is crisp, and she is educated.


CHI: raps: They say history repeats itself, I say we were slaves then, we’re slaves now, they just rearranged us on the shelf, I was birthed into a system designed to fail. Will I ever find success? Only this time will tell. I remember when I was a young girl, writing letters to my momma and my daddy in jail. Who knew back then that I was up next in the cell?

CHI stops and thinks about her words.

CHI: raps: A repetitious cycle from generation to generation I guess it’s to be expected when you’re black and living in the most incarcerated nation.

A loud buzzing sound.

(The Guard and Kayla enter and stand of front of the cell.)

GUARD: Open cell 11.

Kayla, a frail woman with blonde hair and bright blue eyes, stands at the cell door holding her bed cot and jail clothes in her hand.

Chi doesn’t turn around and look. She keeps nodding her head to her own beat.

A loud buzzing sound and the cell door closes.

Kayla looks around, disturbed by her new atmosphere.

KAYLA: I’m Kayla, I just got here.

CHI: I don’t care who you are. Don’t bother me and I won’t bother you. Stay on your side and I’ll stay on my side and we won’t have no problems. That’s your side right there.

(Chi point to Kayla’s bunk)

(Kayla looks and puts her things down)

CHI: Make sure your bed is inspection ready by 7am.

KAYLA: What does inspection ready mean?

(Chi looks at Kayla then gets up)

CHI: Don’t tell me this your first time being locked up. Damn! Why they always wanna give me the new ones? Look, I’m not your friend. I don’t care about your problems and I damn sure don’t care to get to know you. I’m not your babysitter or you’re prison mom, cousin, or sister. Understand? I’ma tell you these rules one time and one time only. You don’t get it; that’s on you. Breakfast is at six, lunch is at nine, and dinner is at three. We count three times a day. They set up rules and then don’t want to follow them themselves. I don’t talk to the police so if you do you might as well get asked to move right now ’cause I don’t tolerate snitches. Understand? Shop day is on Wednesday if you get money and don’t expect me to give you anything. Y’all never did nothing for us but take from my people so I don’t expect no handouts either.

(Kayla bursts into tears)

CHI: Oh, hell naw! We not gone have that! Nope, no, no, no, no, no! Why are you crying? There ain’t no crying in this cell. Dry them tears up, right now!

(Kayla continues to sob uncontrollably)

CHI: I’m not gone deal with this. Guard! Guard! Guard!

(The Guard doesn’t answer)

CHI: Every time! Why can’t I ever just get a cell mate who can do time!

KAYLA: I’m sorry. I just- I just- it’s hard for me.

CHI: And you don’t think it’s hard for me?

KAYLA: I’m not saying that, but I don’t know how I am going to get through this. Away from my family and friends, and my daughter—she needs me. It’s my fault. It’s all my fault.

(Kayla cries again)

CHI: Stop crying. Stop crying. (Yells) Stop crying! Damn! (Chi sits on her bunk) How much time you got?

KAYLA: (Wipes her tears) Four months. I got four months. I got four months for trafficking illegals across the border. I don’t know why I even did it. I need the money and it seemed like a good opportunity at the time. Just a little extra cash in my pocket to pay my bills and buy my daughter some school clothes. I’m here just because I needed a little extra money.

CHI: We all in here for just a little extra money. The kingpins snitch and they get less time. They rat on the little people and the prosecutor shows them favor. But what I am supposed to say when I don’t know nothing. He didn’t tell me nothing. What am I supposed to say? Make up names, make up lies, like he did, frame my own people just to take the heat off of me? He’s already home now, living his life in his happy little house and I’m here, left to rot away by a capitalistic system that throws my people in the death chamber every time they get the chance with conspiracy. They are the conspiracy. They don’t know everything. They’re not God. They try to play God but they’re not God. The crack laws were made to repress us, to hold us down and throw us under the jail cell. They flood the black community with crack, then sentence 100 to 1 versus cocaine. That’s because cocaine is the white man’s drug. We can’t afford it, it’s too expensive. And then they’re mad because I went to trial. Isn’t that crazy? I get punished for my constitutional right, for them to actually do their job and bear the burden of proof. I get punished. I wasn’t signing no deal for something I didn’t do. Nope, no, I’ma do my time. I’ma do it. They can lock my body up but they can’t cage my mind. I’m still free. Just cause you’re locked up don’t mean you can’t be free. I’m still free.

KAYLA: I tried crack once; I didn’t like it. Heroin was my drug of choice. Made me forget about all the bad things that happened in my life.

CHI: Only reason why they trying to change the laws now is because it’s affecting the white people. That meth is a hell of a drug and it’s everywhere, all through the trailer parks and suburbs. That’s the only reason they care now. Because it’s their children getting hit with five and ten year bids. Oh, now it’s a problem? Now it’s an American epidemic!

KAYLA: How much time did they give you?

CHI: Forty-five years.

(The Guard enters and walks by the cell)

GUARD: Lights out! You inmates can talk tomorrow.

The lights fade out on the cell. Kayla and Chi lay down in there bed in silence. Kayla begins to cry again.



The lights come up on the cell. KAYLA is sitting in the bed with her knees to her chest, rocking back and forth, staring off into space. Her heroin withdrawal has kept her up all night. CHI is eating food off of a tray. Kayla’s tray is sitting untouched on the small table. CHI looks over at Kayla and shakes her head and continues to eat.

CHI: You not gonna eat that?

KAYLA: I’m not hungry.

CHI: (Takes tray) You gone have to eat something. Starving yourself is going to get you put in seg.

KAYLA: What is seg?

CHI: Segregation, the SHU, special housing unit. It’s where they put the crazies and the snitches.

KAYLA: I’m not crazy and I’m not a snitch. I’m just not hungry.

CHI: Why were you shaking in your sleep last night? I almost punched you, I thought somebody was in here last night the way you were flopping around like a fish and screaming like you had a demon in you. What’s wrong with you?

KAYLA: The medicine I take gives me bad nightmares and I’m still withdrawing for heroin.

CHI: Why do you all do that?

KAYLA: Do what?

CHI: Put that poison in your body? I don’t understand if a drug makes you sick just come off of it what’s the point? Don’t you do drugs to make you feel better, not worse?

KAYLA: You never did drugs before?

CHI: No, and I never plan on it.

KAYLA: But you are here for drugs right?

CHI: No, I’m here for conspiracy to sell crack cocaine and because I wouldn’t snitch out my boyfriend’s family. Conspiracy is the easiest thing for the feds to get you on because they don’t have to prove anything. All they gotta do is get one person, an informant or a snitch to say they saw you sell drugs or heard from somebody that you sold them drugs and they can convict you. I never touched crack a day in my life. I was scared of it. My daddy was addicted my whole life and I saw what he did to get it. I never wanted to be him, but growing up where I came from selling dope is the normal way of life. It’s like selling tires and people always need tires. I knew my boyfriend sold it, but I didn’t think it would affect me. I didn’t think I would come to prison for him selling drugs. I was in school, I wanted better, I wanted out of the hood, out of the life. But how was I supposed to do that without money to pay for my books, or to keep a roof over my head? It’s an oxymoron to be black and try to live the American life. Go to school, get educated, then you’ll get a better job, a better life. You can move into the neighbored where the police don’t roam the streets harassing everybody, a place where you don’t get killed for just walking home from the bus stop from a dude up the street or a racist pig cop, mad cause his daughter likes black boys.

I tried to do right, do the opposite of what I witnessed every day, tried to be different, and I still ended up in prison. I still fell victim to the game, to the system.

KAYLA: We didn’t have money either.

CHI: But you’re white. It’s different. It’s better to be a poor white than a poor black in today’s society. The system is designed for us to fail.

KAYLA: (starts to cry) I don’t know how I am going to make it. It’s so hard. Oh, God I can’t do this, I can’t do this.

CHI: Aw c’mon, here we go again with the tears. Those tears didn’t stop the judge from sentencing you to prison. You go home in less than 120 days. How can you cry about that? I would sleep 120 days. A hundred and twenty days and a wake up.

KAYLA: But you don’t understand. I don’t have that kind of time.

CHI: I don’t understand? You can see the end of the tunnel, the light, it’s there right there for you. If I don’t get an appeal or a law passes, I will die in this place. Time, you want to talk about time? You stand in the courtroom and hear a judge tell you 45 years for something you didn’t do. He might as well say you’re black and your life doesn’t matter so do this time and make the best of it.

CHI: Another black person off the streets, one less crack baby we gotta worry about on the streets robbing the good white ladies for their purses. The prosecutors, the attorneys, the judge all of them, in cahoots. And after they’re done railroading you up state or to the feds, they all go have lunch and discuss their menial lives over a cocktails in an expensive country club

KAYLA: Not every white person is racist. I’m not racist. I got black friends, Mexicans.

CHI: You’re missing the point. I know that everyone is not racist, I’m not racist. I love all people. This country is racist, a systemic oppressive device to control and manipulate the minds of its inhabitants. They flash the lifestyles of the rich and famous on TV, giving us false hope that one day we can all be rich but not if you live in the hood. The only way to get money in the hood is to sell drugs but in the white school, they get the best of everything. They make you want to go to school and learn, they make the atmosphere conducive to learning. It’s deeper than you can imagine. Think, Kayla, think. Have you ever asked yourself why child molesters get less time than drug dealers, or why there are more minorities in prison when we account for less of the population in America?

KAYLA: No, I guess not.

CHI: That’s because you never had to. I’ve been in a cell with a woman who let random men see naked photos of her two-year-old daughter. Do you know how much time she got? Seven years. Seven. Damn. Years. She’ll do five, get out, and live her life while her daughter is left to fend for herself in a system that doesn’t give a damn about her.

KAYLA: I never looked at it that way. I would never do that to my daughter. I hate people who touch on innocent kids. You can’t blame drugs for that, that’s just wrong.

CHI: You cry about four months, you’ll be home with your daughter doing whatever you want while I’m stuck here a slave to the system, a slave, a new slave with my master’s degree, working for free, living in a cell, eating slops, just hoping one day that I’ll get some crumbs to survive. My mama used to always say, “Let him who have wisdom understand” but they don’t understand. They’ll never understand how it feels to try and do everything right, the way they want and still end up in a cage. I’m not going to let this time break me. No matter what I’ll do my time how I want to do my time.

KAYLA: (coughs hard and throws up blood)

CHI: Are you okay?

KAYLA: Yea, I’m okay. It’s the medicine. I’ve been trying to get the one I got on the outside, but they told me they don’t carry that here so they gave me one like it. I guess it’s okay. I’ll just have to deal with it.

(The GUARD enters)

CHI: Guard, can she get some help. She’s throwing up blood.

GUARD: It’s officer to you, inmate, and that’s not my job description. Put a cop out into medical. She looks fine to me.

CHI: Tell me what is your job description?

GUARD: Not to be wiping up blood.

(The Guard exits)

KAYLA: (lies back on the bed) Oh, God. I don’t know if I can do this. I’m ready to go home. Sorry, I didn’t mean to rub it in your face.

CHI: You’re good. These guards are slaves too, they just don’t know it, slaves to the system that controls their livelihood. Every day, waking up to counting down the days until they retire. What kind of life is that? A meaningless one, with no identity.

KAYLA: Maybe his wife left him. I would have, look at him—all mean and angry.

CHI: Do you know why they call us inmates?

KAYLA: Because we are prisoners, in prison.

CHI: No, because we are in an insane asylum. Society labels us mentally deranged with social intelligence issues if we can’t follow their man-made laws. Something must be wrong with us mentally to veer off from the path that society has laid out for us. Welcome to America where there are no prisoners or prisons. The prisons are called correctional institutions or reform camps that resemble more like concentration camps. Our identity stripped from us, labeled convicts, given a new name, and branded with a number. It’s all a part of their game to try and brainwash us. It’s a money game, too. The more inmates they get the fatter their pockets grow. It’s a corporation where we, the humans, are the stock.

There are three types of inmates. One, the one who thinks this place is reforming them, becomes friends with the authority, the ones who are oppressing them; two, the one who manipulates the system and acts like they want them to act in order to gain rank or position in the prison; and three, the one who completely goes against everything the establishment stands for and gets punished severely for it. I’m three. I know these prisons are not for reform, they don’t want to help us, they want to make money off us and keep us in bondage. I’m a political prisoner, here because I won’t conform to what they want me to be. What are you Kayla? What kind of inmate are you?

GUARD: (yells off screen) Lights out!

KAYLA: I don’t know.

The lights fade out as Kayla ponders on Chi’s questions.



The lights come up on the Chi in the cell. Kayla’s bunk is empty. Chi wakes up and looks over at the empty bunk. Chi stands up and looks around. Kayla’s uneaten tray is sitting on the desk. Chi takes a bite of the bread.

(The Guard enters)

GUARD: Inmate, roll up this bed.

CHI: Why? Where is Kayla? What happened to Kayla?

GUARD: The one that was here? Oh, (chuckles) she died last night.

CHI: How? How did she die?

GUARD: I don’t know. They said cancer or something like that. Now roll up this bed I got another inmate coming in.

(The Guard exits)

Chi stands there contemplating, looking up to the sky.

A ticking tock is heard as the lights fade out on cell 11.