Prison Writing

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. 

Click here to 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.

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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.

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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


House of the Interpreter

Moyet, our interpreter, quietly translates to him what is being said, unconsciously keeping his hand to his throat, with steady eyes focusing on the dead girls. More

This is Where

I’m from where silence is normal and / punitive. / Hugs are warm and forced Catholicism still / weighs heavy on my mother’s shoulders. / At 73—the burden has… More

Run Chile Run

I don't like this place / Locks on the cabinets / And cable cords strapped around da refrigerator's waist / She doesn't like my face / Even, when I’m... More

metal button

33 Days

He turned around and looked out into the empty hallway. No clocks, of course. Inside it was always the eternal sunshine of the fluorescent tube. More

Glimpse: Year 26, 2016

There’s a lot of gray / in what’s left of my hair— / my George Jefferson tonsure / monks somewhere still wear / ... / Styling changes I spied… More

The Setting Sun

I climbed through the side door because the passenger side didn’t open, tossed my sleeping bag in the back. I thought about how lucky other kids were who had… More

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