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Prison & Justice Writing

For more than four decades, 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. We are proud to share our deepening commitment to confronting our era of mass incarceration with the launch of the PEN America Writing For Justice Fellowship. Read below for more information about our initiatives.

Works of Justice Publications

Works of Justice is an online series that features content connected to the PEN America Prison and Justice Writing Program, reflecting on the relationship between writing and incarceration, and presenting challenging conversations about criminal justice in the United States.

In response to the pandemic, we’ve launched Temperature Check: Covid-19 Behind Bars, a new rapid response series featuring original creative reportage by incarcerated writers, accompanied by podcast interviews with criminal justice reform experts on the pandemic’s impact in United States’ prisons.

Read it via our Works of Justice portal here.

Writing for Justice Fellowship

PEN America’s Writing for Justice Fellowship commissions writers—emerging or established—to create written works of lasting merit that illuminate critical issues related to mass incarceration and catalyze public debate. Learn more about the current Fellows »

 

Prison Writing Program

Founded in 1971, the PEN Prison Writing Program believes in the restorative, rehabilitative and transformative possibilities of writing. We provide hundreds of imprisoned writers across the country with free writing resources, skilled mentors, and audiences for their work. Our program supports free expression, and encourages the use of the written word as a legitimate form of power. We strive towards an increasingly integrative approach, aiming to amplify the voices and writing of imprisoned people to expand beyond the silo of prison, and identity of prisoner.

Download a printable PDF copy of our offerings.

 

Handbook for Writers in Prison

PEN’s Handbook for Writers in Prison features detailed guides on the art of writing fiction, nonfiction, poetry, and screenplays—an invaluable resource for any writer. Each year, thousands of free copies are sent to incarcerated men and women.

Request a copy »

Annual Prison Writing Contest

Every year hundreds of imprisoned writers from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population.

Read guidelines »
Visit winner archive »

Mentorship Program

Consisting of more than 250 mentors working with close to 250 incarcerated writers, PEN America’s Prison Writing Mentorships continues to be the most interactive and engaging project in the Prison Writing Program.

Find out more about the Mentorship Program »

 

The Prison Writing Contest Prizes are sponsored by the generous support of the Greenburger Center for Social & Criminal Justice.

Programming for PEN America’s Prison Writing Program is made possible in part by generous funding from the Stavros Niarchos Foundation.

 

Read Award-Winning Works from the PEN Prison Writing Contest

lightning in the sky, over a plain

Ascending the Throne

“If you’re ever in Tustin, CA. in September, walk down Holt. It’s an avenue that starts somewhere and ends nowhere. A wrought iron riddled row of storm channels and… More

grid pattern of jail cell bars

A Funny Story

“Then it dawned on me: people didn't care. I was, contrary to my firmly-held belief, not the center of the universe - my little Bildungsroman epiphany.” More

sunset

Thinkin’ About You

“Or maybe he's thinking that his life is a mess, and that he’d rather die than go on living. And what he doesn’t know. . . you and I… More

tree in cracked ground landscape; dark sky and clouds in background

The War Within

There’s a phrase I’ve heard all too often during my time in prison: “I’ve been doing this all my life.” It’s one I’ve used myself, but I quickly follow… More

cracked window

Broken Pieces

“First off, I wnat to say sorry for the pain I've caused, and at the same time, I know no matter what I say or how much I apologize,… More

Hefe weizen beer in a plastic cup

The Law of Averages

A blind covers the window, though sunlight pokes in to the almost empty room through open corners. A couple plastic laundry baskets hold unfolded clothes, and several cardboard boxes,… More

Ojibwe moccasins in the Wisconsin Historical Museum

Zhigwaajige’

“My mother then explained that the government had run a mass campaign and sterilized Indian people, and that one of the ways to do this was to label anyone… More

hand holding a pen and writing into a notebook

Why I Write

“I write because I have always written, because I want to write, because I don't want to write, because I don't know how to not write. Because, in the… More

From a bird’s eye view, an African American man holds onto the edge of a rocky cliff

Injuries Incompatible with Life

“This is my number, bro. Go to a meeting, get clean, and call me up sometime soon. I need a third baseman for our softball team, and you look… More

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