Mike Phillips was awarded Honorable Mention in Drama in the 2019 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 18, PEN America will celebrate the winners of this year’s contest with a live reading at the Brooklyn Book Festival, BREAK OUT: A 2019 PEN America Prison Writing Awards Celebration.



MIKE—a 65-year-old inmate of German lineage. He has no arrest record, is innocent of all charges. He is a writer, singer, and filmmaker. His health is rapidly deteriorating in jail.
ARCHIE—Mike’s a 37-year-old husband, a Filipino immigrant. His life was threatened after Mike’s arrest and he was convinced to return to Manila where his life is in extreme danger.
MILLIE—Mike’s mother, 86-year-old, German/Slavic. A strong woman who always fought for her son. A bit hunched over from age and a hard life.
DON—Mike’s father, 85-year-old, battered by life.
JAMES—A ghost of a murdered man. Bloody head and clothes.
RAY—The jail psychologist. 60-year-old. Authentic.
JOE—Mike’s grandfather. Don’s father. Serial rapist/pedophile.

Dark stage. Spotlight shines on Mike, a 65-year-old inmate dressed in orange. He is thin but in good shape, looks 40 rather than 65. Salt and pepper hair.

My mother’s family couldn’t have cared less if you lived or died . . . my father’s family wanted you dead. This is my legacy. Both of my parents were the best children of each of their families. They were good people. That’s probably why they fell in love. They weren’t perfect, but they did their best at parenting. I never doubted they loved me. But having grown up in such cold families I wonder where they learned to love. It’s an argument for nature more than nurture. Yet, with Grandpa Joe’s penchant for raping his children and grandchildren, can we support that argument? My father spent his entire life trying to get his parents to love him. They never did.

SITTING IN SPOTLIGHT, Archie, age 37, sick, homeless, disheveled, emaciated, weak, clothes dirty, unwashed. Sitting, crying. Alone in Manila.

Where are you, my husband? Where are you, Mike? I’m lonely for you. You are my only family. I have no one. I love you. (crying.)

DIFFERENT SPOTLIGHT, Millie, age 86, hunched, wearing an old bathrobe and slippers.

Dammit, where’s that dog hiding? Wally?
Where are you? Behind the couch?

Another SPOTLIGHT, Don, age 85, bent over from arthritis. Life has beaten him.

My son. In jail on a murder charge. I told him he was too good to too many people and it would get him in trouble.

DARK STAGE, MIKE in spotlight, shirtless. Thin.

My son, Archie. I call him my son as a joke. He is half my age but we fell in love and married. He is my best friend. My heart, soul, mind, and body yearn for him. But he is 7,000 miles away.

My first partner, Bill, was a handsome man. Imagine Tom Selleck but even better looking. He is a Special Education teacher. We were together 16 years. Then a younger guy convinced him I was no longer worthwhile and he dumped me, broke my heart. Nearly destroyed me. Everyone had seen us as the ideal relationship.

Then I met Mark. I didn’t think I could get a better relationship than I had with Bill, but Mark and I were even better suited spiritually and politically. We became domestic partners. We traveled the world. Unexpectedly, after 10 years, he developed a mid-life crisis and ran away. Took him 18 months to make the break, but he disappeared. I tracked him down. He teaches high school math in Bangkok.

I think I had a nervous breakdown from that loss. It’s all a painful blur, but I lived in San Francisco. I love the city like I love a person, so I maintained. I did fine being alone. Eleven years later, I’m “okay.” I’m always busy, I never get bored. I didn’t date after Mark left. I didn’t date and I didn’t crave sex. I met men, but they didn’t reach the standard of Mark—or even Bill—so I remained single. There were some men who made it obvious they wanted me, even said so, but I couldn’t begin a relationship that could not be maintained. Why do that? Why lead someone on?

Out of the blue, I met an online pen pal from overseas. His name was Archie. We had a lot in common, but he was in the Philippines, a place I had zero desire to visit, so I expected we would just remain pen pals. Over time we grew closer. Eventually we began Skyping. He was cute, handsome even. He was kind and sweet. So I decided to try to get him a work visa.

IN SPOTLIGHT, Ray. A therapist in the County Jail system. 60 years old. Gray hair. Glasses.

I recall the first time I saw Mike during his first week of incarceration, scared. Obviously he had never been arrested before, not for anything. Shaking like a small, frightened dog. Six months later he has come out of the fear. He is righteously angry.

ANOTHER SPOTLIGHT, James. Late sixties. Balding, comb over.

I’m scared. Very scared. Two months ago I was doing well then last month I began losing all energy. Now the doctor says I have lung cancer. Stage four. How does that come on so fast? I go to my doctor every six months! How did they not catch that sooner? I don’t have many people to rely on. I told my family, but they live too far away. I’m telling my friends, but I don’t have many. When I told Mike, he said he would do everything he could to support me. Will he?

SPOTLIGHT, Mike dressed with shorts again. Speaking with his father, Don, on the phone in another spotlight.

I need all the help I can get.

I don’t know what to do.

I miss mother. She would fight tooth and nail for me. I have to tell you something. At my age I can’t start over. If I lose all my belongings I will become a ghost, you will never hear from me again. You will never see me again. Your son will be gone forever. I. need. help.

(Silence on the phones. Mike hangs up.)


Your niece will go to your house and put everything into storage.


I would fight for my children like a lion. Well, maybe not my daughter, she’s an asshole, hurt me. Treated me like crap. I raised them both to be good people. My Mikey, he turned out perfect, never caused me any trouble. His sister? A thief, a whore, probably did drugs. How did children from the same family turn out so different? It wasn’t my fault. She got the bad genes. But I would fight like a lion for my son. You think he’s a murderer? Come over here I’ll slap your head off your shoulders.


I’ve been a therapist for 40 years. You see the guilty and innocent, and between experience and schooling you can read people. Mike couldn’t hurt anyone if he wanted to. He’s suffering all the syndromes of a man in jail shock. “The eyes are windows to the soul?” I look into his eyes each week. He’s worried about me being in danger with real criminals. Mike is just a man who was in the wrong place at the wrong time.


The immigration lawyer said Archie did not have enough college education to get a work visa. My heart sank. But before I left her office she asked if I had emotional feelings for him. She said to come back if it ever developed into love, she also did fiancé visas. A month more of Skyping and I was back in her office.

I had to visit Archie twice to apply for the fiancé visa. He had no money so I went to Manila both times. I did not like Manila. Twelve million people, too hot and humid for me, and the poverty was painful to see, worse than the United States, worse than Guatemala or Thailand. The more I fell in love with Archie, the happier I was to be rescuing this wonderful man from a sure death. I did not like Manila, but I loved Archie.

SPOTLIGHT. ARCHIE, dressed and clean.

After father and mother died I was alone. I had no one and was homeless. Just me and my dog. I was threatened by people in town, so I decide to go to Manila to take school. I cried as I left town. I had to leave dog behind. I lost mother, father, and dog. Dog watch me leave. He was confused.

I get to Manila and apply with caregiving school. Bank loan helped me with school, rent of small room, little food. I use friend’s computer to write emails. I want work visa to go to English speaking country. My mother told me as she died to look for someone to love me. She didn’t know I am a gay. I pray to God very hard to meet a man to love me. Mike is only man who answered my hello e-mail. He is handsome but I don’t think he will like me. He writes me once a week and then twice a week. Then we Skype every week and then once a day. I like him. I beg him to help me get work visa. Then he tells me he will visit me and likes me very much. I am very happy. He asks me if I love him. He is so good to me. I think I do love him.

SPOTLIGHT on James, covered in blood.

Last thing I remember is I fell asleep sitting up on the couch. I have insomnia, so falling asleep any time is a blessing. I hear sounds from behind me. I am groggy. Sounds from the kitchen? What time is it? Seems like night. Is the caregiver here? I left the apartment door unlatched. Suddenly my head hurts, a voice I don’t recognize says, “Where’s your money, asshole? ” Are my hearing aids in? I feel my head hurt again and slide off the couch. Blood drips in my eyes. I see a man but don’t know if I know him. Blurry vision, voice unfamiliar, he jumps over couch. My head hurts again. I reach out to push him. Do I scratch him? I yell, “Stop hitting me!” and he hits me again. “Where’s your money, fag?” he screams. I crawl to my bed, onto the bed, he pulls me off. “I’ll show you for marrying him, fucker! He should be marrying me!” I’m on the floor, he hits my head again and again. I’m so weak, I hurt so bad. How do they say it in movie scripts? “Fade to black”?

(Fade to black)

FLASHBACK 2016. MANILA. Mike and Archie in a car. They are dressed nicely, Archie driving him to airport.

I go back to San Francisco now to have the lawyer submit our fiancé visa paperwork. We’ll have you in the United States within eight months. (Archie pulls car to curb. He sobs so hard he cannot see to drive.)

ARCHIE (Sobbing uncontrollably. Deep sobs of anguish.) Thank you. Thank you. I’ll miss you. I love you. (Very deep, pained sobs.)

Archie, being apart will be hard but it isn’t forever. We will speak every day on Skype and Facebook and emails. As soon as the visa passes we will get you to America and we will marry. I love you. I will marry you. As soon as possible.

(Mike faces audience)

It was at that moment I knew made the right choice.