Catherine LaFleur was awarded the inaugural Bell Chevigny Prize for the 2023 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.


Cheryl Weimar is not dead. 

I tell myself this on days when the mirror won’t look back at me. 

Once you use up all the free attorney services and you are too poor to hire a private attorney, you get me. I work as a law clerk in a small women’s prison in Florida. Based on my literacy level, the warden picked me out of a crowd. There was a six week training seminar. 

For years I have helped women file complaints against the prison administration. My clients are women who are illiterate, or disabled, or can’t speak English well. The prison staff breaks the rules frequently. The violations can be major, from not being credited the right amount of days served on a prison sentence, or minor: getting charged too much money at the canteen store. Inmates don’t have much time. They have to make a report within 15 days of being abused or remain victimized. 

Or worse . . . .… 


Cheryl Weimar is not dead. 

I tell myself this on days when I can’t decide on the best course of action. 

Inmates are charged up to 15 dollars to receive medical treatment. Ninety percent of inmates are required to work without pay. If you can’t pay there is peonage. This can be spread out over three requests for medical services and can take several months, even years. The medical practitioners do not like to diagnose. If there is no illness, no money has to be spent on surgery, treatments, or prescriptions. The prisoners here are remarkably healthy. 

On paper . . . . … 


Cheryl Weimar is not dead. 

I tell myself this because there is no definite memory of her appointments with me. So many women need help and often I am the only person assigned in the law library. Remembering everyone is difficult. I keep a five year file record of women who are seen and heard. There are working notes and rough drafts of successful complaints. 

Reading this record becomes my memory. There are questions I asked her: 

Are you sure you want hip replacement surgery done by prison doctors? 

Are you sure you can’t wait two years until you are free? 

My notes show Cheryl expected to be homeless upon release. She wept. 

I wrote that down in red ink . . . .…


Cheryl Weimar is not dead. 

I tell myself this because the grievance I wrote for her won. Deliberate indifference. Denial of quality of life. Violation of her civil rights. 


Cheryl was put on a bus transport north to Lowell Annex. 

Lowell is a very bad prison. 

Inside are rapists, batterers, drug pushers, pimps, embezzlers, black marketeers, child molesters—–a rogues’ gallery. 

And that’s just the staff . . . .… 


Cheryl Weimar is not dead. 

I still tell myself this. 

Her hip surgery was a success. Cheryl was assigned a safe place to recover and rest. Surely the doctor gave her a pass to release her from forced labor. No bending, no lifting, the usual sort of thing. It should have protected her. 

But it didn’t . . . .… 


Cheryl Weimar is not dead. 

I have to keep telling myself this. 

Her neck was broken because she could not clean a bathroom. She could not do the slave work. A man—a sergeant—broke her neck. Newspaper articles claim he can be seen dragging her away from the cameras. 

Where he did more things to her . . . …. 


Cheryl Weimar is not dead. 

I ask myself if it matters as I fill out another complaint for a woman to go to Lowell Annex for her disability accommodation, for assisted living, or for medical treatment. 

Sometimes my hand trembles. 

Cheryl Weimar is a quadriplegic. 

But she is not dead . . . .… 



Pre-order Thank the Bloom: 2023 Prison Writing Awards Anthology here.