Matthew Mendoza was awarded honorable mention in Poetry in the 2020 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 illustration for this piece of writing was expressly created by an incarcerated artist curated by Justice Arts Coalition. This piece is also featured in Breathe Into the Ground, the 2020 Prison Writing Awards Anthology.


An elephant behind a fence, separated from a herd of elephants in a natural scene, paints an image of itself behind bars with its trunk

Illustration by Rayfel Zumar Bell

Meena paints with her trunk.
She paints elephants on the savanna.
You can buy the paintings
in the gift shop after the show.

When Meena isn’t working
they keep her in a cell,
a collar spiked around her foot.
They say it’s a learning tool
like the bullhook and the nail.
They say it doesn’t hurt.
Meena learned she can’t
keep her weight on that foot.

Before the spiked chain,
Meena roamed the rec yard.
She circled close to the fence line,
eyed the long shadows of the jungle,
searched the distance for solace.


Meena learned to paint elephants
roaming the savanna,
learned she couldn’t be one


“Meena was brought here once, but she tried to run into the forest.”
-Natasha Daly, from her article in National Geographic.

Illustrations by Students at Parsons School of Design