Caroline Ashby was awarded Third Place in Poetry in the 2019 Prison Writing Contest.

Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population. On September 18, PEN America will celebrate the winners of this year’s contest with a live reading at the Brooklyn Book Festival, BREAK OUT: A 2019 PEN America Prison Writing Awards Celebration.


I always run toward the sound of shouting, metal crunching
and glass shattering
My mom would wonder aloud where she went wrong in my rearing. She thought one day she would find me in a body bag or worse, missing, 
                I’d be lost. My bones, lonely,
bleached by the unyielding sun.

I hate hospitals, morgues and funeral homes although my activity 
             speaks differently—  
                           I am the first to arrive
Mom requested only my company during her final days.
She utilized the quiet gift the feared in me while
I watched her last breath and the pulse stop in her neck.
Life was clear and sharp. Death uncovered without discrimination.

In the year after she blew with the wind and floated and sunk
             in her most private rivers,
                         I attended six wakes.
We are all aware of the charade.
The cans on the shelf are straightened in hopes it will change
              the flavor of the contents

I yearned for the day my pulse would stop and I could be
               with my mom. What I didn’t see happening—
               a purposeful disorganization in the Kitchen,
               product kept and unkept,
               more flavor to the unsalted
               and a stronger desire
               to live.