A preview of our forthcoming anthology collaboration with the Justice Arts Coalition, image by William B. Livingston III, created in response to P.M. Dunne’s first prize memoir essay, “The Anti-Social Social Club.”

Every year hundreds of imprisoned writers from around the country submit works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest. And while this is another successful year, boasting a competitive pool with over 1,000 entries to the contest, this is also, in most ways, not at all a typical year. This year, we announce our winners amidst a global pandemic that finds our incarcerated writers in a heightened position of vulnerability—unable to social distance, rendered more isolated without visits from loved ones, perhaps subject to extreme measure such as lockdowns, or without access to personal protective gear. 

In the middle of a flurry of advocacy efforts, our contest offers an inroad to community, an invitation to enter the sacred contract between reader and writer. In this case, the bond created is ephemeral, but profound, moving through the literal walls that separate inside and outside. The work of this contest is needed: to help melt calcified perceptions of who is incarcerated, to uplift the incredible literary voices stifled by exile, to further underscore the knowledge that our humanity is deeply bound to one another’s survival. 

With special thanks to our new Prison Writing Committee, who spent hours intimately involved with the thousands of submitted works to arrive at this roster of talent. Please note, the pieces will be publicly available on our website, and through our annual print anthology in September 2020.

PEN America
2020 prison writing award winners


First Place

Jason Centrone, “No Future in a Circle”

Second Place

Elizabeth Hawes, “What I Would Like To Hear”

Third Place

Terry Hedin, “El Reno”


Honorable Mentions

Demetrius A. Buckley, “In Response to Loneliness”

Matthew Mendoza, “Meena in Captivity”

David A. Pickett, “Eugene Cernan, Last Man on the Moon”



First Place

Mark Altenhofen, “Breathe Into the Ground”

Second Place

Amy Bishop Anderson, “Man of Few Words”

Third Place

Jeffrey Chapman, “Thinkin’ About You”


Honorable Mentions

Nick Browning, “A Funny Story”

Sean Dunne, “Ascending the Throne”

Richard C. Staton, “Toto, I Don’t Think We’re in Kansas Anymore”



First Place

Nick Browning, “Little Gardens”

Second Place

Michael Bankert, “Raw, Real, Uncensored”

Third Place

Kevin Schaeffer, “Tarkovsky by Countlight”



First Place

Peter Dunne, “The Anti-Social Social Club”

Second Place

Jeffrey Young, “Burn, Baby, Burn”

Third Place

Amanda Patt, “Person on the Porch”


Nonfiction Honorable Mentions

James Michael Anderson, “Another One Bites the Dust”

Jeffrey Chapman, “Liar, Pet Cemetery”

Ryan Moser, “Injuries Incompatible with Life”

David Pickett, “Why I Write”



First Place

Elizabeth Hawes, “Supernova”

Second Place

Burl N. Corbett, “Insomnia”

Third Place

Matthew Mendoza, “What’s Prison Like?”


Honorable Mentions

Brian Beals, “Broken Pieces”

Matthew Feeney, “CON*Star Ankle Bracelets”

Sean J. White, “The Law of Averages”



Fielding A. Dawson Prize in Poetry

C. Fausto Cabrera, “Free Press”

Fielding A. Dawson Prize in Fiction

Juan Moreno Haines, “Shadows and Shades”

Fielding A. Dawson Prize in Nonfiction

Dawn  Renee Peel, “Zhigwaajige'”

Fielding A. Dawson Prize in Drama

Daniel S. Throop, “The War Within”


The Prison Writing Contest Prizes are sponsored by the generous support of the Greenburger Center for Social & Criminal Justice.

We are thrilled to share that the newly named PEN America/Edward Bunker Prize in Fiction has been made possible by the legacy of Edward Bunker and the gift of his family.