Visiting the Blues book cover

Every year, hundreds of writers in prisons around the country submit works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest. This year’s submissions spoke to the resilience, individuality, and indomitable artistry of writers inside prison walls. While we celebrate the accomplishments of this year’s winners, it would be remiss not to acknowledge the devastating aftermath of the pandemic’s second year, which saw the eruption of carceral facilities as viral hotspots, empty promises of decarceration, and vast disparities in prison health care. In a time of acute disaster, this contest presents writers, poets, and playwrights with a conduit for their experiences, imagination, and indispensable literary voices. S

With special thanks to our Prison Writing Committee, who spent hours intimately involved with the thousands of submitted works to curate these incredible pieces. These pieces will be publicly available on our website, and are also included in our 2021 print anthology, Visiting the Blues.





First Place

George T. Wilkerson, “Court Kings and Flight Lessons

Second Place

Alex Tretbar, “Now It Seems

Third Place

Kevin Schaeffer, “In Response to Pascal’s Conjecture That All Human Unhappiness Stems From Not Knowing How to Remain Repose in a Room


Honorable Mentions

Demetrius A. Buckley, “Letter from Daddy

Sheryl L. Nelms, “The Blues



First Place

Austin T. Holland, “White-Hot / Black-Hot

Second Place

Alex Tretbar, “W

Third Place

Nicholas Browning, “Solitude


Honorable Mentions

Jeffery Young, “The Scarlet Statute

David Webb, “No Change in Sight



First Place

George T. Wilkerson, “Vacant Lots and Aviaries

Second Place

Ibn Dawud Al-Ugtani, “Can I Interest You in a Story

Third Place

William Myrl Smitherman, “Visitation



First Place

Jayson Hawkins, “Before the Virus

Second Place

Heather Jarvis, “Frozen Pancakes and Bathrooms

Third Place

Leo Paul Carmona, “Growing Pains


Nonfiction Honorable Mentions

Steven Perez, “Mom’s Still Sick

Juan Torres, “Untitled



First Place

Kevin Schaeffer, “The Stairs

Second Place

Leo Cardez, “At the Zoo: An Adaptation of Edward Albee’s Zoo Story

Third Place

William Myrl Smitherman, “Sentenced to Life Without Music


Honorable Mentions

Michael Harrison, “#seethegood

Sean J. White, “The Contemplator



Fielding A. Dawson Prize in Poetry

Timothy Burke, “Memento Mori

Fielding A. Dawson Prize in Fiction

Cassandra Model, “Silence

Fielding A. Dawson Prize in Nonfiction

Paul S. Sedillo, “Cultural Time Roads

Fielding A. Dawson Prize in Drama

Joaquin Madrigal, “How I Could Just Kill a Man

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.