Matthew Mendoza was awarded Second Place in Drama in the 2018 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 13, PEN America will celebrate the winners of this year’s contest with a live reading at the Brooklyn Book Festival, Break Out: Voices from the Inside.

Freedom Feather

C.O. with Billy Club
C.O. Lorraine
C.O. Durst
Miss Lanie
Inmate Lincoln
Inmate Wald
Inmate Rodriguez

Present day.

Nine plastic chairs
A bunch of red feathers
One billy club
Audubon’s “Book of Birds”

(Nine cheap plastic chairs line the stage. A parade of C.O.s, support staff, and inmates file in and take a seat. An empty chair separates the shackled inmates from the C.O.s. A C.O. with a billy club stands behind the three inmates.  A tall C.O. with a major’s star looks down the row of chairs, then rises and steps to the center of the stage.)


I don’t think anybody believes that an inmate turned into a bird and flew away. What we do know is that inmate Carlos Prospero Sanchez was last rostered at the eight-thirty count. That’s A.M. The inmate can be seen clearly on the tape at that time. He seemed to be meditating. He was seen sitting on his bunk. The inmate remained on his bunk like that for an hour. At that point, there seemed to be a flash or a whiteout that lasted thirty-seven seconds. The inmate may have found a way to tamper with the camera or tamper with his radio or other appliances in a way that caused the flash. We are still investigating that. We do know that the inmate was not present at the twelve o’clock count. After several recounts, we sent all the inmates on the farm back to their assigned housing and did a thorough search. The unit remains locked down. Local police, county sheriffs, and the Texas Rangers are actively searching for inmate Sanchez. We have two teams of tracking dogs. Several local citizens with access to small aircrafts are also aiding in the search. We currently have no leads, but we believe that inmate Sanchez will be apprehended soon.

(The major scans the audience and returns to his seat on the end of the row.  The C.O. with the billy club prods an inmate with his nightstick. The inmate jerks away, glares at the C.O., then shuffles to the center stage.)


I don’t think anybody actually believes that an inmate turned into a bird.  

(Street Voice.)

I’m telling you, that man turned into a bird and flew away. He said he was gonna do it and he did it. Why you think they called him the Bird Man? You would think his people just made that up. Why you think he had that feather? I don’t know how he did it. A lot of folks do that Native American thing for flavor but it was different for Bird Man. When he found that feather on the yard, he said it was from a red-tailed hawk. He said that it was a sign. He said that the feather had power. To me, it just looked like a plain feather. It didn’t even look red. But he believed it. He carried that feather everywhere. To the chow hall, to education, to the rec yard. He held it out to his side like sticking your hand out the bus window. You say what you want to—that’s what you gonna do anyway. I’m telling you, that man found a way to make like a bird and fly away. Just like you say. He see’d it. He belee’d it. That man achieved it.

(Inmate Lincoln shuffles back to his seat. The C.O. with the billy club prods the next inmate. Inmate Wald shuffles to center stage.)


I don’t even know why I’m here. Yeah. Yeah. I know Bird Man was my cellie. So what? You know how many cellies I’ve had? Yeah. I don’t either. But it was a lot. A whole lot. I don’t keep track of that shit. That’s your job. I do MY time. I don’t do nobody else’s. You know how long I’ve been locked up? Nineteen years. That’s a whole ‘nother life. My old lady moved on. Stayed with me for eleven years. My little bro went blind cookin’ that meth. All I do is listen to the radio. Read some books. That Game of Thrones is what’s up. I never talked to Bird Man. I didn’t reach out to him or connect with him. Sometimes, he’d buy me a soda or an ice cream. Yeah. I know that’s not allowed. So what? Bet you won’t kick me out of prison for it. I hope he did turn into a bird on your ass. I hope he makes your life hard. Hard as ours.

(Inmate Wald shuffles back to the chairs The C.O. with the billy club grabs the collar of Inmate Wald’s shirt and drags him offstage.  Inmate Rodriguez looks around, shrugs, and shuffles to the center of the stage.)


Hey. Que tal? OK. So, one time, he told me, Someday I’m gonna fly away. He said, “I’m gonna soar so high I’ll look around and see nada but los cielos. No razor wire. Nada pero clouds and sky.”  I asked him, Pajaro, “you gonna take me with you?” He said, “find you a feather, Pepe. Find you a feather.” I said, “Hell no. I’m afraid of heights.”

 (Looks around.)

I’m not afraid of them. I just don’t like being somewhere that’s not on the ground or whatever. Plus, I only got seven years. I can do seven years standing on my head. I’ll leave the feathers to those vatos who need them.

(Inmate Rodriguez shuffles back and sits down in his plastic chair. The Major returns to center stage.)


Again. No one believes that inmate Sanchez turned into a bird.

(The Major returns to his seat. A broad in casual, mismatched clothes and oversized glasses steps forward. She carries a copy of Audubon’s book of birds. When she gets center stage, she opens the book and holds it up.)


This is a picture of a red-tailed hawk. It is interesting to note that Inmate Sanchez—Pajaro, which means bird in Spanish—that inmate Sanchez and the red-tailed hawk in this picture do look similar. This particular book is not available to be checked out, but the inmates are allowed to read it during assigned library time. Inmate Sanchez would spend his entire forty-five minutes sketching or writing poems about the red-tailed hawk. I encouraged this. I even kept one of his poems. Yes,I know that this is not allowed, but I found it and I kept it. I have it here.

(Miss Lanie sets the book on the floor and pulls a piece of paper from her pocket and unfolds it.)

It’s a haiku, really. Not a poem.


“Each day my soul shrinks. Wind doesn’t taste the same through razor wire.”

(Miss Lanie folds up the poem and returns it to her pocket.)

A library is an amazing place. Entire universes all in one little, bitty room. I encourage all the inmates who use the library to dream big—to let their souls breathe. I don’t know if inmate Sanchez turned into a bird or not. It is interesting to imagine, isn’t it, spending your life soaring where the air tastes the way it should.

(Miss Lanie picks up her book and returns to her seat. The major holds out his hand and Miss Lanie gives him the poem.  A C.O. in a razor-sharp uniform, slick hair beneath her cowboy hat and polished boots, marches toward center stage.)


Lorraine. C.O. Five. North Tower. I know what you’re all thinking. Woman, right? She’s weak. She let him waltz right on by. You would think that a woman doesn’t belong in the tower. That I don’t belong up there. Well, I do. I can outscore everyone of you on the range and I can outshoot everyone of you beer-bellies out here and I’m not going to miss out on a chance to prove it. It took me five years to make it into that tower. I earned it. If some looney-tunes inmate is dumb enough to run past my post, he’s gonna get shot. I promise you. I promise you. If inmate Sanchez came my way, he’d have a hole in him – not a little lady-like hole either. A regulation-sized hole. A permanent reminder of his time here and a lifelong limp to go with it. There is nothing weak about this woman and I’d appreciate it if you’d remember that.

(Steps back. Steps forward.)

I didn’t see any unauthorized birds either.

(C.O. Lorraine returns to her seat. C.O. Durst steps forward.)


Lorraine is a hell of a shot. Me? I couldn’t hit water if I fell out of a boat. I don’t believe that this inmate turned into a red-tailed hawk or any other type of bird. Listen — truth is, I can’t imagine anything worse than being locked up. I can’t imagine being locked up myself. To look around and see nothing but concrete and steel and razor wire. I’m not saying nobody belongs here, but decades? Decades. Then when you release ’em they’re socially retarded and you expect ’em to be citizens. That’s funny justice. Hell, you can’t release a bear into the wild after he’s been locked in a cage for some years. A bear. That wire does something to a man.

(Looks back at Lorraine.)

…and a woman. I’d go crazy myself. Sometimes I do anyway and I only work four days a week. That’s long enough. Hell, most weeks it’s too long. And he had a what? A twenty-five? Twenty-five years of this place. The same food every week. The same routine every day from your first day to your last day twenty-five years later. Hell, even if you teach them a trade in here, they can’t do nothing with it until they make parole five, ten years down the line. Book learning is just a fantasy if you can’t do nothing with it. I’d try to turn my ass into a bird, too. Not a hawk though. I like those scissor-tail flycatchers. Now that’s a bird.

(C.O. Durst returns to his seat. A woman – the victim – steps out of the audience and walks up on stage.)


They told me he escaped. Warned me. Warned me? In one phone call you took everything that I built away from me. Now, you say that he turned into a bird. What am I supposed to do with that? Am I supposed to be afraid of birds now, too? Then what? Trees? I’ll stay away from trees. Then grass. Will grass be next? I hate him for what he did. He deserves prison. He hurt me. He made me think that what we did was normal. But I am tired of being the victim. I’m better than that. I’m bigger than that. No one will let me be anything else. You make me the victim. I want to forgive him and move on — to accept his apology if he has one. If not, screw him. But I need to move on and no one will let me. I hope he did turn into a bird and he poops on this whole, stinky system. I’m tired of hating. I’m tired of hurting. I’m done being the victim. Justice didn’t make anything better and no one will let me forgive.

(Suddenly, shiny, red feathers drift down from the ceiling. They shimmer and twist in the light.  Everyone on stage watches them drift down.  Erica returns to her seat. Before she leaves the stage, inmate Lincoln and inmate Rodriguez each scoop up a feather and move toward Erica. Erica freezes in terror. The inmates stop and offer Erica a feather.  After a moment, Erica steps towards the inmates and takes a feather from each of them. She squeezes their hands and leaves the stage. The C.O. with the billy club herds the inmates back to their seats. The Major stands and walks to the center of the stage.)


I think that it is important to remind everyone that nobody believes that this inmate turned into a bird.