(New York) — Today marks the publication of The Sentences that Create Us: Crafting a Writer’s Life in Prison (Haymarket Books), gathering stories and writing guidance from some of today’s most exciting writers who have served or are serving time behind bars, including Curtis Dawkins, Ear Hustle, Reginald Dwayne Betts, Randall Horton, Mitchell S. Jackson, Piper Kerman, and Luis J. Rodriguez.

Drawing upon the stories of their own incarceration as well as their insights into surviving the trials of prison in accessible personal essays, contributors also offer pragmatic and spiritual lessons in editing, revision, seeking publication, establishing writing routines, starting prison-based publications and writing groups, and other resources for those who wish to write behind and beyond prison walls. 

The publication will be supported by a $1.5 million grant from the Mellon Foundation to distribute 75,000 copies in classroom sets to prison libraries nationwide, as well as to higher education and creative writing programs working with justice-involved communities.

The Sentences That Create Us provides a means for those writers behind bars to not only create their best and most meaningful work, but also to launch that work into the outside world,” said Caits Meissner, editor of the book and director of Prison and Justice Writing at PEN America. “The Mellon grant assures that the book will reach the readers and writers who need it the most.”

The Sentences that Create Us – also supported by generous grants from the California Arts Council and New Balloon/Catapult – has received early praise from acclaimed writers and activists.

“This volume is an homage to the power of writing to deliver each of us from our individual confines into the soaring infinity of our imaginations,” said Jennifer Egan, former president of PEN America and Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist.

Threaded throughout the book is the running theme of addressing lived trauma in writing and writing’s capacity to support an authentic healing journey centered in accountability and restoration. While written towards people in the justice system, this book can serve anyone seeking hard won lessons and inspiration for their own creative—and human—journey.

“This is one of the best books on writing that I’ve ever read. I couldn’t put it down,” said Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow. “There are millions of stories locked behind bars, along with the millions of people our nation has caged. This astonishing book has the power to set those stories free. And I believe the truths contained in those stories just might free us all.” 

Founded in 1971, PEN America’s Prison Writing Program has amplified the writing of thousands of imprisoned writers by providing free resources, skilled mentors, and audiences for their writing. 

Haymarket Books will host an online book launch event on February 1 at 5:00pm ET, with Meissner in conversation with Reginald Dwayne Betts, moderated by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah. The event is free to attend. Register here.

“We are honored to publish this vitally important book,” noted Anthony Arnove, editorial director for Haymarket Books. “The Sentences That Create Us embodies the power of the written word to highlight injustice and change the world.”