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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

A yellow canary on a jagged branch before a pastel purple and blue backdrop

Shadows and Shades

“I picked up the mirror and saw a shift as I thought about my wounded life—the wounds that came from wanting to be someone who I am not.” More

Black and white illustration of a woman with tears in one eye, black markings on her face, and a skeleton of a bird on her shoulder

Man of Few Words

“I’ll be here until I die. I release you. You’re a man, still young. The girls are soon off to college. Junior’s in highschool. Find someone who’ll love our… More

Empty prison cells

Little Gardens

“The older I get the more constricting I find the hetero mask to be. Committing this to paper is, then, something of a coming-out party.” More

A woman with an earbud in one ear stares at a small bird flying in front of her with several red flowers in the foreground and rain in the background

What I Would Like to Hear

“I hear a Kawasaki ZRX and a strumming of a bass guitar coming from a few houses down and someone speaking Spanish as I turn the page to the… More

tree in center of field

El Reno

Today, when I felt the wind, I could not travel with it. Past the guard tower it blew, over and around the cyclone fence and razor wire. More

Pencil drawing with a female face merging into natural imagery. The lower part of the image has a hand holding a baseball and a bike before a full moon.

Breathe into the Ground

“This time... this time you breathed into the ground so your children wouldn’t hear your startled sobs that escaped from your chest as you thought about your friend.” More

Grey circles with varying opacity over black background

No Future in a Circle

That tingling or the tractor fumes—buoyant and a bit slow to go—still—the briefest souvenirs—all traverse a circle—meaning one more ride won't bring us ‘round— More