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

My Father’s Violin

My father played his violin every evening, standing by the upright piano in our dining room. Hearing him play was my first memory, and I can no longer recall… More

Siddhartha’s Loop

I been goin’ to the Jersey shore since I was a kid and ain’t never seen a condom or syringe wash upon the sand. The only thing hazardous was,… More

Planted in Concrete

I stood and stared at the vent on the wall above the toilet in my cell, holding a ripped piece of my sheet in my hand. I knew the… More

After Prison

I have 10 minutes until a call-out to see the mental health case manager I call Mr. Forgiveness. I don’t want to see him, not because he is always… More

Accomplice

It was a treat whenever Cameron jumped on his Huffy and bicycled his way from his Barry Circle apartment complex in Bloomfield to our home in the next town… More

How Should I Look?

Would you prefer I meet your expectations, / Grasp your neck with yellow-clawed fingers, / tobacco-stained tips squeezing off your airway, / Sour breath tinged with yeasty fumes of… More

Catching the Setting Sun

“Mama, why does the sun go in the water?” “To let us sleep, son. To let us sleep.” “Why do we have to sleep?” “‘Cause we tired. Ain’t you… More

Examination

For a long time I wished someone would break my nose, but nobody has ever had the guts, or, more likely, the time to do it. After a while… More

Apple Jelly

“Clem! Where you been hidin’? Ain’t seen you in a month o’ Sundays!” “Tell ya what Emmett, you buy me a Pabst an’ I’ll tell ya ’xactly where I been.… More

The Blessing of Jebidiah Goodytake

That damned Bernie! One night, without invitation or provocation, he just burst into my room and began tapping my pillow—thump thump thumpity thump—as if he were jabbering off some… More

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