NEW YORK—Today, PEN America announced the inaugural Writing for Justice Fellowship cohort. Participants were selected for the year-long fellowship for having conceptualized writing projects that illuminate critical issues related to mass incarceration and catalyze public debate. The cohort is comprised of ten—an expansion from the advertised six—emerging and established writers, including members who are currently and formerly incarcerated. Read the full list of fellows and bios here.

Each participant will receive honorariums that range from $5,000-$15,000 to develop a project that engages readers around issues of mass incarceration reform, has strong potential to inspire change, and promise for publication. Fellows are paired with mentors in areas of expertise to best support the proposed project, and include names such as the New York Times’ criminal justice editor Shaila Dewan, best-selling novelist Justin Torres, and multimedia artist Bayeté  Ross Smith. The cohort will also convene twice over the course of the Fellowship, in addition to presenting at the PEN World Voices Festival. The awarded projects include the genres of fiction,  long-form journalism, theater, memoir, poetry and multimedia.

“The first cohort of Fellows was selected from over 800 applicants,” said PEN America Prison and Justice Writing Program Manager Caits Meissner. “With the consequences of mass incarceration growing in America’s cultural consciousness, we’re proud that our Fellows are further expanding the public discourse. Our awarded projects push against the concept of community supervision as an antidote to mass incarceration, question current reform strategies, illuminate underrepresented topics such as the high rate of Native American imprisonment, and lay out the lived realities of those directly affected: what is it like to return to society after prison? Co-parent with an incarcerated partner? Survive death row?”

The Fellows will also benefit from the expertise of the Writing for Justice Advisory Committee, comprised of Asha Bandele, Dr. Baz Dreisinger, Ear Hustle Podcast’s Nigel Poor and Earlonne Woods, Dr. Eve L. Ewing, Randall Horton, Piper Kerman, Zachary Lazar, and Julio Ricardo Varela.

The group will convene for the first time in New York City for a weekend of roundtables and community building with experts from local organizations such as the Vera Institute and The Moth, formerly incarcerated leaders, and criminal justice-focused writers and editors. The public is invited to meet the Fellows on Saturday, October 27 for Authoring Advocacy: Pioneering Anti-Prison Activist Theresa Martinez in Conversation with Rachel Kushner, featuring a dialogue about the challenges that activists, writers, and formerly incarcerated people face in the collective pursuit to bear witness to, and understand, the prison industrial complex. A meet-and-greet with most of the Fellows will follow the discussion. 

The Writing for Justice Fellowship is made possible with the generous support and vision of the Art for Justice Fund, and builds on the legacy of the four-decade running PEN America Prison Writing Program. Founded in 1971, the PEN Prison Writing Program provides hundreds of imprisoned writers across the country with free writing resources, skilled mentors, and audiences for their work.


PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.

CONTACT: Anoosh Gasparian, External Relations Manager: [email protected]