Freewrite Curricula

For more than five decades, the PEN Prison and Justice Writing (PJW) program has worked to amplify and liberate the voices of thousands of incarcerated writers through the written word. By providing resources and mentorship opportunities, we help these writers integrate into the broader literary community, both within and outside the prison walls.

The Sentences That Create Us book coverIn 2022 PJW added to our existing work with the publication of The Sentences that Create Us: Crafting a Writer’s Life in Prison which we are distributing for free to incarcerated writers thanks to the generous support of the Mellon Foundation. If you teach in a carceral setting, or want to send a copy directly to an incarcerated writer, you can order free copies of this text through this form.

Now, PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Program announces a companion curriculum of writers’ workshops specifically tailored to the challenges of creating while incarcerated and guidance on how to establish and run a round table writing workshop. Co-written by formerly incarcerated authors Sterling Cunio, Michele Scott, Suotonye Deweaver, Zeke Caligiuri, founder of the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, Jen Bowen, and founder of Prison Arts Collective, Annie Buckley, these two curricula center the specific needs and challenges of writing in community inside.

Like The Sentences that Create Us, the curricula are designed to foster community and assist incarcerated writers in refining their writing skills in community. They explain how to give peer review, editing strategies and publication information. One version is designed for use by facilitators already teaching writing inside. The second version is a self-directed curriculum that can be implemented without oversight and is designed for facility staff with limited time to help foster self-expression or for writers working without programmatic support.

To receive PDFs of these curricula, please complete this form.

These workshops have been tested by over 150 incarcerated writers in 10 states and were revised based on participant feedback. They are designed to be useful for people at all skill levels of reading and writing. Please see the recording of our release and training, facilitated by three pilot workshop leaders who explain the process of establishing a workshop, explain the benefits of the curricula and answer questions about implementation.


Julie Ann Ward is the City of Norman, Oklahoma’s inaugural Poet Laureate (2022-2026), and translator of Ships of Houston by Nadia Villafuerte (Undiscovered Americas, 2023). She is the author of A Shared Truth: The Theater of Lagartijas Tiradas al Sol (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019) and founding editor of the open-access educational resource Antología abierta de literatura hispana (Rebus Community Press, 2017). Her literary work has appeared in Latin American Literature Today, Nimrod, Postscript Magazine, and World Literature Today. Ward has a PhD in Hispanic Languages and Literatures from the University of California, Berkeley and is a member of the Choctaw Nation of Oklahoma.

JoyBelle Phelan is a writer who serves as writer relations manager at Prison Journalism Project, and is co-founder and executive director of Unbound Authors. Phelan was incarcerated twice for a total of seven years and passionately believes that no one should be remembered for the worst decision they have ever made. She is using her lived experience to challenge the perceptions of what prison is like for women and what reentry can look like. While inside, she was in various leadership and peer mentor positions, worked as the pre-release clerk and helped to develop and implement the re-entry unit program. She was the first woman at her facility to be published in Colorado’s The Inside Report prison newspaper, later serving as Managing Editor while employed with DU Prison Arts Initiative. She currently volunteers in the Colorado Dept of Corrections, providing writer mentoring labs to incarcerated writers, and is a graduate of the 2023 Dream Justice cohort. She has been a guest on multiple national podcasts focused on re-entry. Her TEDx San Quentin talk can be found on YouTube; her writing can be found on the Prison Journalism Project website.

Kimberly Nelson is the Supervisor of Education at the Federal Transfer Center in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. She holds a Doctor of Education in Leadership and Administration from the American College of Education and has over fifteen years of teaching and education leadership experience.