- Prison and Justice Writing
- Annual Prison Writing Contest
- Prison Writing Award Winners Archive
- PEN America Prison Writing Award Winners: 2022
John Corley was awarded an Honorable Mention in Poetry in the 2022 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.
The first of 12,000 nights fell hard,
strangely welcomed after the long ride, the
processing procedure that swept up leftover
details for the criminal record. Fresh fist,
they called me, can’t put you in population.
I’ll be okay, but they sent me to a cellblock.
For your own good, they said. We’ll see how
things go. Things went
To Camp-D Raven, tier 3-right, cell 8.
Raven is a working block. 32 men per tier,
eight tiers, 256 incorrigibles, sobbers and fish.
My cellie is Popeye. He’s my age, wild-eyed,
adjusted to incarceration, a player, into
everything except punks. Welcome, he says.
It’s October, warm and humid. I wish people
would stop welcoming me to my end game.
At least you’re clean, Popeye says. First joste?
Wanna smoke? Where you from? What kinda
time you got? I want to crawl into my top
rack and die. The tier is loud. Conversations
bounce from one to the other end. I have
a life sentence, Popeye says. He slouches on his
footlocker beside the bars wearing boxers and
shower shoes. He has Dumbo ears. Picked
up a woman in a bar, took her out and killed her,
he says. I was high. Wanna get high?
I save my butts in a Skoal can, conserve
my few smokes remaining. Popeye laughs
when I pass on his offer, but this guy’s weird
and I’m on edge. The strokes chilled me in
the parish, now they’re staring me in the face.
I was nothing from no one other than space.
Prison doesn’t offer much space. I think of
home and want to cry but I won’t let that happen.
Lights out at eleven.
I smoke a butt and crawl up top. The mattress
and sheets are thin but I’m out of gas. Ancient
graffiti scratched into flaking gray testifies
that generations of poor bastards have lain
here, mind-battered, alone, hoping to awake
before they even close their eyes.