David A. Pickett 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.

There is a certain reluctance among

us people in prison and those (yes,

I said people, but what I mean

is Travis and Andrew and James,

Osma, Davon, H-Town, Black,

Shorty and Rocko and Red and Tank)

who are on our side—there are

sides, yes indeed, not just left

behind or raptured right

inside the walls or outside

fences, caught between defense

and prosecution (so close to

“persecution,” but believe

me, all of us are safer with

some of us locked up or

locked down, if fewer than any

of us might count or know)—

advocates for a more humane,

which is not to say human,

distribution of justice,

which is not to say mercy,

to acknowledge that here, in

this very place where we abide,

for retribution, punishment,

deterrence, or rehab—to be taught a lesson, or set

an example (“This, children, is what

you want to avoid in your life,”

the void so easily filled with story

of who, or rather what, we are

or were or could become if

left to our own devices or in

the grips of our vices) never

mind the moral complications

of punishing Peter save

Paul, sacrificing the few

to save the all (for certain

limited values of “all”)—

set apart for our sins,

the secular version of sins, that is,

we, having moved beyond the New

Testament virtues of love

and forgiveness, into the grim

dark business of old, I for

an I makes the whole world

balanced in the scales

of the carefully blinded Justice—

we are yet living, are alive,

to be reminded that there are

days, hours, minutes, even weeks,

when we do not, in fact, weep,

when we eat food that our

tongues might rejoice in, we

laugh like men might laugh

at a joke that the free

world might laugh at, or cry

when a child is said to die;

we hunger and are filled

with the bite of a sharp wind,

roll over and are comforted

by the embrace of a fresh-

ly laundered sheet; our sleep

some nights even sets us free.


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