Updated on May 13

(NEW YORK)— In response to an article in Prism Reports raising concern around Prison and Justice Writing contest winners not receiving award money, PEN America issued the following statement:

We remain committed to the writers we serve, who live and work from prisons across the United States and are the heart of our program. While our work in the carceral space has been ongoing since the 1970s, we are continuing to improve our internal processes to best support these communities of writers given often obfuscatory policies and regulations in prisons.

Every year, about 30 writers are awarded monetary prizes from the PEN Prison Writing Awards. Six writers who had outstanding payments came to our attention (they won the contest between 2020 and 2022). The six outstanding payments were out of a total of 94 payments issued during 2020-2022, which is an average of two payments each year that were not received by the winners. At the onset of this period, the COVID pandemic required all staff to work from home and interrupted our established process for issuing and receiving physical mail, our primary form of communicating with writers in prison.

PEN America has reached out directly to the writers involved and have been in communication with them since the publication of the article. We appreciate their cooperation as we resolved the matter. All six monetary awards have been issued. As of May 12, five of the six have confirmed receipt of payment.

To acknowledge the impact of the delayed payment, we were also able to offer the writers an additional monetary award, beyond the cash prize.

As a long-term course correction, PJW has already created an internal audit system to double check to ensure all payments that go out each month are received by the loved ones of the incarcerated writers (since many prisons do not allow incarcerated individuals to be paid directly) or the writers themselves. Lastly, we are actively addressing the structural and systemic challenges around compensating incarcerated writers in an equitable and timely manner across our literary programs.

There are long-standing structural and systemic challenges we face. Many prison systems, including the federal Bureau of Prisons, prohibit incarcerated people from receiving compensation for their writing directly. Paying friends and family members is something our program has done for a long time, but it’s not without risk. Sometimes, people have disagreements and the payment doesn’t make it back to the hands of the writer. Sometimes a check is cashed and no one is sure who cashed it. In other instances, prison systems have tried to requisition payments for writing claiming that if incarcerated people are able to, they should be required to pay for the conditions of their confinement. In other cases, a W-9 form is required to pay incarcerated writers from our program, and sometimes incarcerated individuals do not have a social security number or other information to be able to fill out the form. Because of these impediments, issuing payments often takes a very long time and there are frequent issues in paying writers.

PJW is committed to making sure every incarcerated contest winner receives the cash awards they deserve in a timely manner.


About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect free 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.

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], (201) 247-5057