Prison Writing

Founded in 1971, the PEN Prison Writing Program believes in the restorative, rehabilitative power of writing and provides hundreds of imprisoned writers across the country with skilled writing teachers and audiences for their work. It provides a place for these writers 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 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. You may also request or purchase one on behalf of an incarcerated person.

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. 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 incarcerated writers, 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

Illinois Abolishes the Death Penalty

The governor of Maryland, Martin O’Malley, argued in 2007 that the money could be better spent on providing drug treatment or extra police, which actually prevent crime. Such an… More

Commissary Day

The unthinkable happens: They call for another shot. There are not even ten people in the hyena den to fill a shot. All of us are either stack-holders or… More

Beauty

On July 4th the temperature was 97 degrees. I had no costume, no mask, and no sweatshirts. However, I was behind the shield and helmet. Jumping, dodging, running, weaving.… More

A Good Dude

The whites are loosely arranged by hometown and run together as a car, or collective. It’s like a gang, but with no real structure. White power inmates largely call… More

Seven Thousand Yesterdays

Robert Earl was 64 years old, whip thin and frail-looking, though he was still in pretty decent shape. He wasn’t stooped, but he had a weighed-down way of standing… More

A Day in the Life of a Prisoner

Everyone smoked in the old days, and convicts made picture frames and jewelry boxes out of woven cigarette packaging. People made cardboard shelves and curtains for their cells. It… More

The Target

Three days before Tuesday, I told him. He bought box cutters and ducktape. My father dropped his face into his Wilt Chamberlain hands. The items gave my story the… More

Bringer of Fire

“Bugs? You got me for fucking bugs?!” He savagely backhanded me and I fell to the floor, the taste of copper in my mouth. Standing over me he screamed… More

What She Knows

She gathers an empty bottle washed / ashore and tosses it far to sea. / It sinks, fills, becomes ocean, / I see through ages—it settles / by a… More

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