As I Hear the Rain

cover of the As I Hear the Rain prison writing anthology

Purchase the anthology here.

For the second year in our three decade Prison Writing Awards’ history, we’re proud to have produced a book anthology displaying the winning work. When we made the decision to bring the contest into print form, we thought about what it must be like to win an award, but have no context for where the work appears, who else won, what caliber of writing your piece sat among, who the organization was issuing it. Given the fact that there is no internet in prison, it felt important to create a document that could land in our writers’ hands and answer all of these important questions. And because the written work is judged rigorously, we wanted to create a beautiful package that honored the quality of the content inside. When the Illustrated PEN team invited us to collaborate, we jumped at the chance for accomplished illustrators to bring a handful of the writers’ pieces to life.

When soliciting the artists for the second annual 2019 Prison Writing Awards Anthology, As I Hear the Rain, we turned to an incredible project created by Tamara Santibañez of Discipline Press: When You’re Gone, a DIY-style stationary set assembled from photocopied black and white pencil drawings, all by incarcerated artists. Each piece also includes the artist’s contact information, an invitation to participate in creative exchange through the walls. The artists featured in the forthcoming book were discovered in When You’re Gone’s pages, and directly commissioned to visually respond to our award-winning author’s work.

Celebrating Tamara’s vision, we asked her to create an image for our cover art, which she graciously donated, and invited her to expound on the project that directly inspired this anthology’s visuals.

—Caits Meissner, PEN America Prison and Justice Writing Program Director


A message from Tamara Santibañez:

Mail exchanges have always held a kind of magic to me. As a young person in the pre-internet age, the mail was often the only way to access precious cassette tapes, t-shirts, zines, and information. Sometimes the only way to request something was to send something else in exchange. One small point of access could lead to a world of knowledge that otherwise felt so far away, and bring it in just a little bit closer.

In encountering the prison system’s communication restrictions, I am reminded of that time in my life. There are countess differences between the two exchanges, but the multitudes of hope that an envelope can contain remain the same. That any amount of hope can make it through a complex net of censorship, mailroom restrictions, contraband regulations, and stretches of segregation and solitary confinement is a miracle. That it is not only hope, but courageous works of creativity, authorship, political ideology, imagination, and compassion that make their way across the prison walls is a stunning testament to the human spirit.

When I attended Black & Pink’s exhibit of work by incarcerated LGBTQIA+ artists at Abrons Art Center a few years back, I was not only struck by the artwork itself, but by the system they had created to text a message to a code. The message would then be converted to a letter, which would be sent to the individual artist as a way for the audience to connect. My own pen pal relationships with artists on the inside have been an unending source of strength and inspiration. In compiling the When You’re Gone stationery set, I hoped to give others a sense of how mutually rewarding communicating with artists on the inside can be, as well as to showcase the artwork in a more intimate medium that could continue the magic of the mail.

—Tamara Santibañez, Discipline Press

Original cover illustration, Tamara Santibañez


by Davi Gray, Third Prize in Fiction
Illustrated by Jeremy Wilson

“Randy was sweating heavily. He shifted a step closer to the guide, who smiled at him. She flipped a switch to turn the lamp off, then clicked off the flashlight. The ceiling of the cavern sprang to phosphorescent life. What had been dull gray was now marked with sprays and swirls of glowing colors, pinks and greens and purples, as if the ceiling had been painted with light. It didn’t much look like the Milky Way; it was a more fantastic collection, like glowing nebulas, clouds of stardust and remnants of supernovas, splashed across otherwise starless space.
Randy pulled the pistol out of his sweatshirt pocket and pointed it at the tour guide. He spoke in a low voice. ‘Give me the flashlight.'”

Read the full manuscript here.
Listen to Carl Weintraub read an excerpt of “Geode” here.


“Young Girl Twenty”
by Vaughn Walker, Fielding Dawson Prize in Poetry
Illustrated by Tara Layer

“5’10 admired by crooks that be like, “Hey Dawn”
Mostly by chicks that get they hate on
Suede boots, with a Gucci skirt, she stayed
on Apple juice and Bonton chips, to keep her weight on
The type of chick that young thugs’ll wait on,
and older catz lose they weight on”

Read the full manuscript here.


“Time Reversal Invariance”
by Davi Gray, Second Place in Poetry
Illustrated by Andrew Romero

“It used to be that physicists 
thought the world might run 
the same forward as in reverse: 
that is to say, we had no means 
to know which way time flowed.”

Read the full manuscript here.


“Triple Sessions”
by Kevin Sawyer, Honorable Mention in Nonfiction
Illustrated by Lafayette Watts

“Sometime after quitting the varsity team, I was in the football locker room during PE talking shit, about what I don’t recall. An assistant coach responded to my trash talking. ‘A lot of people were expecting big things out of you this year, Sawyer,’ he said. After he said that, I felt empty inside, as though I’d let him, myself, and my team down. It hurt me and I left the locker room wondering why not one of my coaches had expressed those words to me sooner. The recognition would have made all the difference to me. The coaches did notice me. My hard work stood out like I thought it would. But it was too late. I’d already quit the team. Once you do that, there’s no returning until next season. I was a senior, so there would be no next year or season.

Read the full manuscript here.

Purchase As I Hear the Rain, the 2019 PEN America Prison Writing Awards Anthology here.