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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

Inferno

You can scream, you can holla, you can yell, you can shout! / It won’t change a thing, they not letting us out. More

Sedimentary

Years before we moved into the little white house / on the hill a road construction crew sliced off / the hillside edge to make way for the highway… More

Yonder

Some of the travelers around the square blinked away from gazing at the dreamily whitening and reddening coals, and looked up at Auntie. She defied every stare, until their… More

Come Break Me Down

I try to envision hanging myself from a locker that is shorter than I am. It seems impossible even in my head, despite any amount of dedication. I decide… More

Desert World

Being the queen can be the most lonely job in the world sometimes and Carmelious was the closest person to her. Sending him out here most have been very… More

Sessions

Fine, I saw all that, and I saw…sweat. Dying sweat on a forehead, rage sweat coming down a face, scared sweat above a lip. You know what I think?… More