Prison Writing

Founded in 1971, the PEN Prison Writing Program believes in the restorative, rehabilitative power of writing and provides hundreds of inmates across the country with skilled writing teachers and audiences for their work. It provides a place for inmates to express themselves freely and encourages the use of the written word as a legitimate form of power.

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 incarcerated writer. Each year, thousands of free copies of the Handbook for Writers in Prison are sent to incarcerated men and women who request a copy.Request your copy of the handbook or purchase one on behalf of an incarcerated person.

Annual Prison Writing Contest

Every year hundreds of inmates 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. Manuscripts come to us in a variety of forms: some are handwritten, some are typed, some are written in the margins of legal documents.

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Mentorship Program

Consisting of more than seventy mentors working with close to one hundred inmates, PEN America Mentorships continues to be the most interactive and engaging project in the Prison Writing Program.

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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

The Music of Lucas Darnish

His right hand broken and rebroken, the knuckles recessed toward his wrist until the knuckle of his pinkie almost touched it. When he held his hand sideways, it looked… More

Betrayal–Past–Tony

I met Tony when I was nineteen. I was wild-eyed and wide open, looking for love and finding nothing but one night stands in the back seats of random… More

UN Plaza

Today is not that good day, / I do not want to die. / I’m not a soul but a seal / in the company of seals... More

Cultivation

Burlap sack snaps in the windagain, the turn-rows grow longer.Along the way, days become bygones—dandelions dancing in the breeze.Knees dig into loose soil,toiling hands peel away a husk.Dusk meets… More

An Ordinary Prison

Peer into a prisonariumWe travel in a fish bowlPut your ear to the glass and hearA mumbled roar with shrill highlightsCardsharks hunched over scores and crumbsSlapping cards and grunting… More

Solitary Confinement

Most Americans don’t know that the Bureau of Prisons has the sole authority to put any prisoner in solitary confinement—or in any prison facility—for any amount of time under… More

Escape Risk

CAST SKULLLESTERTOOTYBUZZARDERSKINEGRANGERBETTYJEETER A madmanA foolA blimpAn old pervertA runaroundA guardA nurseAn off-stage voiceSCENE: A four-man CELL, open toward the audience, back of the cell are vertical steel bars, with a center… More

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