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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 2018 PEN America Writing For Justice Fellowship. Read below for more information about our initiatives.

For information on writing programs in prison across the United States, click here to access our living document database

 

Writing for Justice Fellowship

The PEN America Writing For Justice Fellowship will commission six writers—emerging or established—to create written works of lasting merit that illuminate critical issues related to mass incarceration and catalyze public debate. Applications open on April 15. Learn more »

 

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. 

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.

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 »

 

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

The Stew of Discontent

Part of the perennial problem with the Texas prison system stems from an inherent comprehension deficit. To use an idea of Alexander Solzhenitsynts, it seems we’ve lost capacity for… More

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

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