“There are millions of stories locked behind bars, along with the millions of people our nation has caged. This astonishing book has the power to set those stories free.”
—Michelle Alexander, author of
The New Jim Crow

The Sentences That Create Us book cover


Crafting A Writer’s Life in Prison

By PEN America
Edited by Caits Meissner
Director, Prison and Justice Writing

Published by Haymarket Books

A road map for incarcerated people and their allies to have a thriving writing life behind bars—and shared beyond the walls—that draws on the unique insights of more than fifty contributors, most themselves justice-involved, to offer advice, inspiration and resources.

On Sale: January 11, 2022

With generous support from the Mellon Foundation, we are donating and distributing 75,000 copies of the book in classroom sets to as many prison libraries nationwide as possible, as well as to individuals, higher education and creative writing programs working with justice-involved communities.

Writing & Discussion Guide

The Sentences that Create Us Writing & Discussion Guide was created by Rachael Zafer in collaboration with PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Program to help readers dive deep into the text to find the resources, and inspiration to further their writing craft, and develop literary rituals, structure, and support. Readers are encouraged to follow the guidance and prompts that most resonate, and use them as a springboard for discussions, personal reflections, journaling, or as a companion to help engage more intentionally with the book. This flexible guide may be used in solo practice, in educational spaces, in literary mentorships, in peer writing collaborations, and more!

Praise for The Sentences That Create Us

“A book rich with craft and the vitality of necessity.”

“This is one of the best books on writing that I’ve ever read. I couldn’t put it down. There are millions of stories locked behind bars, along with the millions of people our nation has caged. This astonishing book has the power to set those stories free. And I believe the truths contained in those stories just might free us all.”

—Michelle Alexander,
author of The New Jim Crow

“When I was inside, I had no access to this manual. It didn’t exist. And so, I scraped along the best way I could. I talked to friends who plotted out novels by riffing on rap albums. I talked to friends who’d written hundreds of pages, by hand, fantasy novels that only they and I and those walking the yard would read. And we were all writers. But had we had this book—we would have been better writers.”

—Reginald Dwayne Betts,
from the foreword

The Sentences That Create Us feels like a cosmic reminder that the most radical, life-giving art is created and received from the inside to the inside(s). This book, unlike any other I’ve read, takes seriously the beating hearts and curious minds behind the bars of a nation obsessed with punishing the most vulnerable.”

—Kiese Laymon,
author of Heavy

“Not only a powerful guidebook for all who are curious about developing a writing practice, this radical collection also demonstrates how people surviving and resisting the prison industrial complex reimagine and rebuild our world. With entries including narratives of writing lives and communities behind bars, definitions of key concepts and terms, and samples and examples across genres (from poetry to journalism and more), this fierce resource equips readers with all the tools to write ourselves into freedom.”

—Erica R. Meiners,
co-author of Abolition. Feminism. Now.

The Sentences That Create Us offers an illuminating array of tutorials and testimonials, reckonings and brass tacks. But above all, this volume is an homage to the power of writing to deliver each of us from our individual confines into the soaring infinity of our imaginations.”

—Jennifer Egan,
author of A Visit from the Goon Squad

The Sentences That Create Us, PEN America’s new handbook, is both metaphor for the system and means of reinterpreting it. These writers—made on the inside—reveal the many ways that denial of a creative intellectual life on the outside is one of the pillars of our current carceral dependency. Shooting stars on every page, this book is instructional beyond its promise. Through it, we may just learn that we have always had better solutions than bars and walls.”

—Gina Dent,
co-author of Abolition. Feminism. Now.

“Having taught college-level English courses in prison for more than a decade, I am thrilled for a volume like this one: chock full of prose that is not only beautiful, inspirational and wise, but hugely helpful in a pedagogical sense—a perfect addition to all syllabi that involve writing in the carceral space.”

—Baz Dreisinger,
author of Incarceration Nations

“A book rich with craft and the vitality of necessity. An essential collection and a gift to the world.”

—Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah,
author of Friday Black

The Sentences That Create Us is a wonderful immersive guide into the world of writing (and reading) that will explain, reinterpret and transform genres you thought you knew. It is a profound reminder that writing, when nurtured by those denied, has redemptive power not only to examine and interpret our lives, but also to change them.”

—Donna Murch,
author of Assata Taught Me

“Take advantage of every word, Caits Meissner tells readers of this powerful anthology. Its authors certainly have. The Sentences That Create Us is a practical tool of the ways currently and formerly incarcerated people and their allies, gifted writers all, seize the written word to do what prison refuses: celebrate the human. Here is a moving, hands-on guide to freedom writing.”

—Dan Berger,
author of Captive Nation

Published Book Excerpts

Remix the Plan, Return to the Purpose by Nicole Shawan Junior
Teachers & Writers Magazine, July 20, 2022

On Writing and Staging a Play in Prison by Sterling Cunio
Los Angeles Review of Books, July 6, 2022

Burn the Spot by Piper Kerman
Writing about people you encounter in prison carries special responsibilities
Inquest, March 15, 2022

“Prison Writer” by Justin Rovillos Monson
A Meditation on Histories and the Sentences that Create Them
Catapult, February 28, 2022

Why Write About Life in Prison? By Derek R. Trumbo
Because every story needs hope 
Slate, February 23, 2022

Press, Reviews and Interviews

Book Bans in US Prisons Undermine Rehabilitation
New Lines Magazine, January 2023

Electric Lit’s Most Popular Articles of 2022
Electric Literature, December 2022

Free writing workshop for formerly incarcerated community members, titled ‘The Sentences that Create Us’
The San Diego Union-Tribune, December 2022

Prison and Justice Writing at PEN America and the Importance of Dialogue Across Divides
Oprah Daily, September 2022

Book Review: The Sentences That Create Us
World Literature Today
, August 2022

American Writers Festival this Sunday: Mini-Interview with Caits Meissner 
Axios Chicago, May 13, 2022

Books that take you behind prison walls with stories of survival and tenacity
The Globe and Mail, April 25, 2022

Caits Meissner and Nicole Shawan Junior on The Sentences That Create Us
New Books Network, New Books in African American Studies Podcast, April 14, 2022

Reginald Dwayne Betts on How Freedom Can Begin With a Book
Time Sensitive Podcast, April 13, 2022

“Written for the Struggler” with Sterling Cunio and Caits Meissner
PWN’s Debut Review Podcast, April 12, 2022

“The Key to Resilience” with Sarah Shourd and Robert Pollock
PWN’s Debut Review Podcast, April 8, 2022

10 Essential Books About Writing
Bitch Media, April 6, 2022

Setting Stories Free with Caits Meissner and T Kira Madden
Write-minded Podcast, April 5, 2022

The Unique Challenge of Designing a Book By Incarcerated Writers: Caits Meissner and Melissa Joskow 
Literary Hub, 
April 5, 2022

Finishing Sentences: Writing about the harms of the penal system from within it is a form of freedom-fighting. It is not without risks — and many rewards.
Inquest, March 24, 2022

Prisons Aim to Stifle Creativity. Here’s a Book That Pushes Back.
Truthout, March 15, 2022

A Conversation with Caits Meissner and Patrick O’Neil
Ben Free Podcast, March 10, 2022

A Handbook for Creating a Literary Life in Prison
Electric Literature, February 24, 2022

Review: “The Sentences That Create Us” — In Prison, Triumphs Great and Small
Art Fuse, February 23, 2022

Crafting A Writer’s Life In Prison
WORT 89.9 FM, February 22, 2022

Reginald Dwayne Betts shares stories from his “writing life”
Yale Daily News, February 18, 2022

Starred Review: The Sentences That Create Us: Crafting a Writer’s Life in Prison
Publisher’s Weekly, January 28, 2022

Newly Published, From Art Criminals to Sentient Fungi
New York Times, January 7, 2022

Review: The Sentences That Create Us: Crafting a Writer’s Life in Prison
Poets & Writers

Best Books for Writers
Poets & Writers

Live Conversations and Readings

The Sentences That Create Us
with Nicole Shawan Junior, moderated by Sha’Condria “iCon” Sibley 
OneBook, One NewOrleans, November 17, 2022

Crafting A Writer’s Life in Prison: A Conversation
with Luis J. Rodriguez and Caits Meissner
Tia Chuchas Centro Cultural, March 1, 2022

Before Time Reading Series
with Ellen Bass, Zeke Caligiuri, Elizabeth Hawes, Nicole Shawan Junior, Nigel Poor, Luis J. Rodriguez, Louise K. Waakaa’igan and Jeffery Young
Hosted by Caits Meissner
Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, March 4, 2022

Alta Live: Writing Behind Bars
with Piper Kerman and Caits Meissner
Moderated by David Ulin
Alta Journal, February 16, 2022

The Sentences That Create Us Virtual Book Launch
with Reginald Dwayne Betts and Caits Meissner
Moderated by Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah
Haymarket Books, February 1, 2022

About the Book

The Sentences That Create Us draws from the unique insights of over fifty justice-involved contributors and their allies to offer inspiration and resources for creating a literary life in prison. Centering in the philosophy that writers in prison can be as vibrant and capable as writers on the outside, and have much to offer readers everywhere, The Sentences That Create Us aims to propel writers in prison to launch their work into the world beyond the walls, while also embracing and supporting the creative community within the walls.

The Sentences That Create Us is a comprehensive resource writers can grow with, beginning with the foundations of creative writing. A roster of impressive contributors including Reginald Dwayne Betts (Felon: Poems), Mitchell S. Jackson (Survival Math), Wilbert Rideau (In the Place of Justice) and Piper Kerman (Orange is the New Black), among many others, address working within and around the severe institutional, emotional, psychological and physical limitations of writing prison through compelling first-person narratives. The book’s authors offer pragmatic advice on editing techniques, pathways to publication, writing routines, launching incarcerated-run prison publications and writing groups, lesson plans from prison educators and next-step resources.

Threaded throughout the book is the running theme of addressing lived trauma in writing, and writing’s capacity to support an authentic healing journey centered in accountability and restoration. While written towards people in the justice system, this book can serve anyone seeking hard won lessons and inspiration for their own creative—and human—journey.

The Sentences That Create Us includes contributions from Alexa Alemanni; Raquel Almazan; Ellen Bass; Reginald Dwayne Betts; Keri Blakinger; Jennifer Bowen; Zeke Caligiuri; Sterling Cunio; Chris Daley; Curtis Dawkins; Emile DeWeaver; Casey Donahue; Ryan Gattis; Eli Hager; Ashley Hamilton, PhD; Kenneth Hartman; Elizabeth Hawes; Randall Horton; Spoon Jackson; Mitchell S. Jackson; Nicole Shawan Junior; Yukari Iwatani Kane, Shaheen Pasha, and Kate McQueen of The Prison Journalism Project; Piper Kerman; Lauren Kessler; Johnny Kovatch; Doran Larson; Victoria Law; Jaeah Lee; John J. Lennon; Arthur Longworth; T Kira Mahealani Madden; J. D. Mathes; Justin Rovillos Monson; Lateef Mtima, JD; Vivian D. Nixon; Patrick O’Neil; Liza Jessie Peterson; Wilbert Rideau; Alejo Rodriguez; Luis J. Rodriguez; Susan Rosenberg; Geraldine Sealey; Sarah Shourd; Sarah Shourd; Anderson Smith, PhD; Derek R. Trumbo Sr.; Louise K. WaaKaa’igan; Andy Warner; Thomas Bartlett Whitaker; John R. Whitman, PhD; Saint James Harris Wood; Earlonne Woods and Nigel Poor of Ear Hustle; and Jeffery L. Young.

The Sentences That Create Us book cover

On Sale: January 11, 2022


Haymarket Books  Powell’s   Women & Children First

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About Caits Meissner

Caits Meissner is the director of Prison and Justice Writing at PEN America. She has taught, consulted, and co-created extensively for over 15 years across a wide spectrum of communities with a focus on prisons, public schools, and college classrooms at The New School and The City College of New York. In 2017, Meissner reenvisioned the concept of book tour for her illustrated poetry collection Let It Die Hungry, pairing public speaking engagements with opportunities to work with incarcerated writers across the United States.

Caits Meissner headshot

Photo by Beowulf Sheehan

About PEN America’s Prison Writing Program

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. Sign up for news and updates from Works of Justice, our online series that features content connected to the Prison and Justice Writing Program »