First Prize Winners Are from Tennessee, California, Pennsylvania and Kansas

(NEW YORK) – PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing program today announced the winners of its 2022 writing awards for incarcerated writers in five categories—drama, fiction, memoir, essay, and poetry. The winners wrote about topics including the criminalization of homelessness, bonds between people behind the walls (including between staff and people who are incarcerated), the role of writing in prisons, traumatic childhoods, isolation, the environment, and climate change.

For over 50 years, the program has championed the literary art of imprisoned writers across the United States; PEN America’s program represents one of the earliest outlets for free expression for the incarcerated population.

Caits Meissner, director of PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing program, said: “This year’s submissions underscore the extraordinary resilience, individuality, and indomitable artistry of writers inside prisons. These indispensable poets, playwrights, essayists, and fiction writers face hardships and challenges inside the walls that most of us cannot imagine and yet, they persevere to bring their experiences, imagination, and literary voices to the public. And it’s important for us to note that last year, incarcerated individuals still reeled from the devastating aftermath of the pandemic which made the vast disparities in prison health care more clear than ever.”

Winners receive a monetary prize and have their works published in PEN America’s 5th Annual Prison Writing Awards Anthology.

Here are the winners in five categories:

DRAMA

First Place—  

Alex Friedmann, “Twenty Years In Solitary – A Play in 20 Acts” – through detailed snapshots of daily routines and the systemic privation of an individual incarcerated in solitary confinement, we witness the resilience of the human spirit and insights into this widespread human rights violation.

Alex Friedmann is incarcerated as a pre-trial detainee who has not been convicted. Friedman is a long-term criminal justice advocate, and has shed a light on prison privatization and the adverse effects of for-profit prisons. Friedman has spoken before the Tennessee State Legislature and has been interviewed about criminal justice issues in several countries. Friedman was raised overseas but has called Tennessee home for much of their life. Friedman enjoys writing fiction, nonfiction and poetry under the watchful eyes of an enthusiastic terrier named Rusty.

Second Place—

Brandon Amos, “Can’t Win PEN”

Third Place—

Evan Drennan, “Chasing the Apex”

*Fielding Dawson Award— (NOTE background on the award below)

Sean White, “T-Minus”

Honorable Mentions—

Burl N. Corbett, “Officer Sam Doesn’t Work Here, Anymore”

Walter Sam, “Horrible Brothers”

Gary Farlow, “A Homeless History Lesson”

FICTION

First Place—

Frank Kensaku Saragosa’s, “Life. In Pieces” offers a geographical tour of the rough side of San Diego, where the reader is introduced to the epitome of street life, “The Bottoms,” described with vivid and plain language. He conveys the nuances between homelessness and drug use along with the decision-making that perpetuates the cycle.

Frank Kensaku writes to make sense of difficult to understand experiences. A formerly unhoused person, Kensaku’s literary art often addresses addiction, homelessness, criminality, and incarceration. Kensaku writes both fiction and non-fiction; much of his work sits in the space where they meet.

Second Place—

Rahsaan Thomas, “Silent Treatment”

Third Place—

Ryan M. Moser, “The Reinvention of Lenny Primo”

Fielding Dawson Award—

Seth Wittner, “The Intern”

Honorable Mentions—

Wintersun Lemieux, “A Fable for Leann”

Thomas Bartlett Whitaker, “Release”

Kevin Schaffer, “Word of the Day: Bifurcation”

NONFICTION—ESSAY

First Place—

Frank Kensaku Saragosa’s, “Homelessness in America” is an excerpt of a longer work covering the itinerant life of homeless people through the permeable US/Mexico border in California, where he writes about the tactics of policing on American streets that serve to decrease both public safety and the safety of unhoused people in active addiction.

Kensaku writes to make sense of difficult to understand experiences. A formerly unhoused person, Kensaku’s literary art  often addresses  addiction, homelessness, criminality and incarceration. Kensaku writes both fiction and non-fiction, much of his work sits right in the space where they meet.

Second Place—

Joseph Grosso, “Now This Man”

Third Place—

Lyle May, “Y’all Ain’t Here To Be Rehabilitated”

Honorable Mentions—

Reginald Stevens, “From the Sidelines”

Paul Wach, “I Work as a Lead Man”

Daniel Pirkel, “The Unintended Consequences of Retributive Justice”

NONFICTION—MEMOIR

First Place—

In Burl Corbett’s, “Another Rainy Day” – picturesque language describes large- scale meteorological events unfolding just outside the prison along fields of flowers, prompting the author to contemplate a youth spent outdoors, and the silver lining behind even the darkest clouds.

Born in Reading, PA and raised on a farm only three crow miles away from John Updike’s adolescent country home, Burl Corbette lived among Haight-Ashbury and New York City’s countercultures until returning to Pennsylvania. Corbett is a writer who came to prison at the age of 60 without a criminal record apart from an offense from 24 years earlier.

Second Place—

Ignacio Carrillo, “Convict Chronicles: Cooking”

Third Place—

Geneva Phillips, “The Hard Part”

Fielding Dawson Award—

Steven Perez, “A Texas Prisoner Remembers”

Honorable Mentions—

Elizabeth Hawes, “Pain Management”

John Adams, “Hating Daddy”

Dezi Wallace-Mitchell, “Co-Ed”

POETRY

First Place—

In Alex Tretbar’s masterpiece of poetic structure and focused intention,“Variations on an Undisclosed Location,” rich language illuminates the speaker’s shockingly intimate interiority along a crescendoing arc of interpretation that questions our relationship with carceral mechanics as we engage in the voluntary act of witnessing through the written word.

Alex Tretbar was born in Michita, Kansas, and he earned degrees in journalism and English from the University of Kansas. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Poetry Northwest, Kansas English, and Placed: An Encyclopedia of Central Oregon, Vol. 1.

Second Place—

  1. Fausto Cabrera, “When Kneaded”

Third Place—

           Fernando Rivas, “Inquiry”

Fielding Dawson Award—

Chad Rand, “Litany in Paris”

Honorable Mentions—

           David A. Pickett, “Lightning Rods”

Jason Centrone, “Without You Silhouetted”

John Corley, “First Night”

This coming Dec. 2, the program will host its annual Prison Writing Anthology end of year event, BREAK OUT, to celebrate these writers and their work. The celebration will take place at the Brooklyn Public Library’s Grand Army Plaza location. More information is forthcoming.

*On the FIelding Dawson Prize:  Fielding Dawson—a former Chair and devoted member of the Prison Writing Contest judging committee— believed, as we do, that good writing can come from any background. He was a champion of work that was unvarnished, spirited, sincere, outspoken and not necessarily complete. This award was created after his death to encourage and support the same.

About Prison and Justice Writing at PEN America

For five decades, PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing program has amplified the work of thousands of writers who are creating while incarcerated in the United States. By providing resources, mentorship, and audiences outside the walls, we help these writers to join and enrich the broader literary community. Committed to the freedom to write in U.S. prisons as a critical free expression issue of our time, we leverage the transformative possibilities of writing to raise public consciousness about the societal implications of mass incarceration and support the development of justice-involved literary talent.

The program includes:

PEN Prison Writing Contest: one of the longest-running outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population

Prison Writing Mentor Program: over 300 working writers and 300 incarcerated writers working together toward individualized literary goals and cultivating an engaged literary community through and behind the walls

Writing for Justice Fellowship: a commission for emerging or established writers to create written works of lasting merit that illuminate critical issues related to mass incarceration and catalyze public debate

Works of Justice Publications: an online series that features content connected to our department’s programming, reflecting on the relationship between writing and incarceration

About PEN America

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. Learn more at pen.org.

Contacts: Caits Meissner, director, PEN America Prison and Justice Writing, CMeissner@PEN.org, 646-779-4827; Suzanne Trimel, STrimel@PEN.org, 201-247-5057