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.

Purchase Variations on an Undisclosed Location: 2022 Prison Writing Awards Anthology here.