- Prison and Justice Writing
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- PEN America Prison Writing Award Winners: 2022
Sean White was awarded the Fielding Dawson Prize in Drama in the 2022 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.
EDDIE BERMAN–in his early forties, race indeterminate, probably white; he has served two decades in prison, perhaps a couple years more.
TERRELL JOHNSON–45 years old; he killed a cop at 15 years old and has been in prison ever since.
JERRY BROOKS–60-year-old white man, rather spry for his age, though rounded at the edges.
TELEPHONE GUY–30-year-old black man.
C.O. SHNEIDER–early forties, a white man.
WORKERS–Men of various ethnic groups and ages; some wear kitchen
whites and hair nets, others grungy prison uniforms.
PA VOICE–race and age indeterminate, though likely white and male between 30 and 60 years old.
A prison dayroom. Molded plastic chairs uniformly surround a line of five empty tables bolted to the floor. Behind them are two tiers of cell doors. To the left is a staircase. To the right is a bank of four telephones. The telephones look like pay phones from the late 20th century, and chairs identical to those with the tables wait adjacent to each phone. Although light fixtures protrude at intervals along ceiling spaces and overhangs, the dayroom is dim with most of the lights dark.
(The dayroom is empty.)
PA Voice: 7:00 a.m. count is clear. Library will be closed until 2:00 p.m. Maintenance crew A should report to the garden. No chaplain open office hours today. All passes will be rescheduled. I repeat, there are no chaplain open office hours today and all passes will be rescheduled.That is all, count is correct and clear.
(The lights go up. ENTER EDDIE, TERRELL, JERRY, and PHONE GUY.
Phone Guy heads straight for one of the phones. Jerry carries a stack of newspapers and an empty plastic cup, sets the newspapers on a table, and EXITS past the phones. Terrell chooses another table, a chess set and an identical plastic cup in his hands. Eddie bears a plastic jar of instant coffee, mostly empty, and another small
plastic jar, utterly empty and without label and lid, that probably held some other food item like
peanut butter. Eddie joins Terrell.)
Eddie (Sets the coffee jar on the table, scoops crystals into
the other jar): Cup of coffee?
Terrell: I’d rather drink yours than mine. (Scoops crystals into his cup.)
Eddie: Whatever we don’t drink now is yours when I go.
Terrell: ‘Preciate you.
Eddie (Reaches for Terrell’s cup): Set ’em up, I’ll get the water.
(Terrell hands Eddie his cup, sits. REENTER Jerry, who sits by the newspapers with a steaming cup of coffee. EXIT Eddie past the phones. Terrell lines up the pieces on the chess board, while facing the empty chair.)
Terrell: Nell, I guess this is it.
(REENTER Eddie with a cup of coffee in each hand.)
Eddie (Hands Terrell his cup): Here you go.
Terrell: Good lookin’. (Beat.) I gave you white ‘cuz…you know, one last time ‘n all.
Eddie: ‘Preciate you helping me kill the time. You got no idea what I’m going through right now.
Terrell: You livin’ the dream, ‘stead a this bullshit.
Eddie: I’m sorry. I’m not tryin’ to rub it in or nothin’.
Terrell: No, no. You did your bid, now you get to go. (Beat.) Now sit your ass down ‘n play.
(Eddie sits. They sip coffee and play chess. It doesn’t matter who wins and loses. At the end of each game, they turn the board around and set up for another. They play rather rapidly, though not true “speed chess.” Occasionally, toward the end of a game, before checkmate when the situation seems dire, the struggling player concedes with statements such as “you got me,” or “that one’s yours.” (ad lib))
Eddie: I know we hear it from a lot of guys, but I mean it. I am gonna keep in touch, bro.
Terrell: Aw’ right.
Eddie: You don’t believe me?
Terrell (Laughs): You said it, brotha, we hear it so much, it becomes, like, I dunno, like some meaningless shit people say just to be sayin’ somethin’. It’s wind, know what I’m sayin’?
Eddie: I’m not sayin’ I’m gonna write every mothafuckin’ day.I’m sayin’, ‘I’m gonna keep in touch.’
(A pause. Eddie ignores the game for a moment and looks at Terrell.)
Eddie: How long have we known each other?
(ENTER WORKERS. They take turns shaking Eddie’s hand or dapping with him. Ad lib Works saying things like “stay up,” and “good luck;” while Eddie responds with “‘preciate it,” and “thanks.”EXIT Works past the phones.)
Terrell: You got a real fan club goin’ on.
Eddie: For real. (Beat.) You know what’s really crazy though? Some of the guys haven’t ever really talked to me. I mean, we might exchange a head nod or a good morning or whatever, but we never really chopped it up.
Terrell (Thinks for a moment before speaking): You know…It’s…I think it’s kinda righteous, you know? The one thing we got in common is this shit. I mean, you know what it’s like when someone goes home.
Eddie: I know what it’s like for the guys that gotta stay, sure. (Pauses, uncertain how to continue.) But you can’t understand… (Beat.) You can’t understand what it’s like to leave here.
Terrell (Somewhat angry): What the fuck’s that supposed to mean?
Eddie: You know what, let’s just play, all right?
(They play chess, but without the enthusiasm of earlier games, mostly in silence. ENTER C.O. SHNEIDER looking in cell door windows behind the tables. He stops at the chess game, watches for a moment.)
Shneider: Mornin’ fellas.
Eddie: Hey, Shneider.
Terrell: Mornin’. What’s up?
Shneider: Just stoppin’ by to wish this guy well. (Thumbs at Eddie.)
Eddie: My people here yet?
Shneider: No, not yet. But I promise I’ll come get you myself when we the call from up front.
Shneider: Got any big plans for the day?
Eddie: Just the usual–I’ll pick up an eightball and a fifth, and hook up with a couple a hos who wanna party. (They all laugh.) Seriously, though, I’m gonna take my mom to breakfast, and see my P.O.
Shneider: You got work lined up?
Eddie: Jesus Christ! What’s with the twenty fucking questions?You don’t think I don’t got enough on my mind without having to respond to this shit to every authority figure who thinks it’s their goddamn business what mine is?
Terrell: Chill, bro.
Shneider (To Terrell): No, it’s okay.
Eddie: No, it’s not okay. Listen, Shneider, you’re laid back, sure, but you’re still a cop. And in a couple hours you’ll just be another one of the thousands of shitty-ass threads that fucked with my head. Do you understand how much this shit has fucked me up? Has fucked up everyone here?
Shneider: You’ve always been decent, Berman. You’ve been over here, what, four years? (Beat while he waits for an answer that doesn’t come.) You think I haven’t thought about how this place affects people, whether you guys or us? Let me tell you that I have, and I do. That’s why I don’t bust your guys’ balls unless I have to. (Beat.) Anyway, I just wanted to come out here and wish you luck.
Eddie (mumbling): ‘Preciate it.
Terrell: Later, Shneider.
(Shneider returns to looking in cell door windows, EXIT. The games resume, relatively quietly for a time.)
Terrell: Where you goin’?
Terrell: You said you’re takin’ your momma to breakfast. Where you gonna go? That who’s comin’ to pick you up?
Eddie: Yeah. I dunno. I mean, it’s been, like, twenty years. How many of the restaurants I knew are still open? (Stares at the chessboard without moving.)
Terrell (Laughing): shit, and I got another ten on you. Do you think Woolworth’s still got counters? (Turns serious.) My grandmomma used to tell me about that shit. (Beat.) You know she sent me ten dollars every month ’til she died?
Terrell: I said, did you know my grandmomma sent me ten bucks a month ’til she died?
Eddie: You never told me about her. When did she–um–pass?
Terrell: When did we start kickin’ it? What was it, oh-five, oh-six? Well her kidneys gave out–Jesus–I wanna say ninety-nine. That’s the last time I saw her, too. My momma told me over the goddamn phone. (Beat.) Man, I hate these mothafuckas.
Eddie: You, and everyone else here. (Beat.) They still got Denny’s, don’t they? I think I saw a commercial on TV.
Terrell (to Jerry): Hey, Jerry, do they still got Denny’s restaurants?
Jerry (Without looking up from the papers): Far as I know.
Terrell (to Eddie): So Denny’s it is then. What’re you gonna have?
Eddie (Closes his eyes): Eggs as far from hard boiled as they’ll serve. Bacon, pork bacon. Black coffee brewed from beans. (Opens his eyes.) Beyond that we’ll see.
Terrell: Jerry, what do you think?
Jerry: Beats the hell outta cold toast and peanut butter.
Terrell (to Eddie): What do you most wanna eat out there? Maybe not for breakfast, but, you know, soon?
Eddie: Steamed asparagus. (Beat.) oh, man. A few years ago I had a plug in the garden who got me a bunch of the shit when it was in season one year. Ate myself sick of it. I had that stinger runnin’ so much I popped a fuse. I hid my shit fast as a bitch and quick ran down and started yellin’ at ’em for cuttin’ my power. (They laugh.) They were apologizing to me by the time I was done.
Terrell: I don’t think I ever had it. What’s it like? Jerry, you ever had any?
Jerry: Any what?
Jerry: MY wife–ex-wife–knew where some grew wild in a ditch.She made me drive her to this spot in the middle of nowhere along the highway, and we parked and picked the shit.
Terrell: They got it at grocery stores?
Eddie: I’d imagine.
Jerry: Sure, in season.
Terrell: Well, all right then. Eddie, you just gonna have to buy some a that shit from the grocery store then.
Jerry: Unless some broad wants to take you to her secret patch. (Beat.) Good luck out there, kid.
Eddie: Thanks. (returns his focus to the newspapers.)
Terrell: Let’s go. We got time for me to whoop your ass a few more times. (The intensity and speed of the games increases. Ad lib friendly smack talk: “You sure you wanna do that,” and “You think you’re slick,” etc. Occasional Workers cross the stage from the telephones, perhaps up the stairs. Eddie and Terrell finish their coffee.)
Eddie: Man, am I sick of this swill.
Terrell: For what they charge, the shit should get up and make itself. (Beat.) ‘Nother cup?
Eddie: Naw, man. I’m good.
Terrell (Rises, dumps a spoonful into his cup): I’m gonna go for another.
Eddie: Man, you’re gonna piss the rest of my bid away. Literally. (They laugh. EXIT Terrell. Eddie stares at the chessboard, fingers one of the pieces. REENTER Terrell with a fresh cup of coffee.)
Terrell: You ready?
Eddie: Naw, man. I think I’m good. I…
Terrell: You okay?
Eddie: I’m nervous as hell, to be honest. I… I dunno, man.What am I gonna do?
Terrell: We been talkin’ ’bout this shit for the last eighteen mothafuckin’ months. You ain’t ready to get the fuck outta here?
Eddie: Well, yeah, but–uh–well, I…
Terrell: C’mon, man, don’t be one of them chumps. We done talked about this.
Eddie: What’d Mike Tyson used to say? ‘Everybody’s got a plan ’til they get hit in the mouth.’ Well, I’m about to get hit in the mouth.
Terrell (Laughs): This is real fucked up. We do all this punk- ass time, and when it’s time to go home, we don’t wanna go.
Eddie: You’ve been a good friend, Terrell.
Terrell: C’mon, man, none a that sappy shit. (Beat.) Man, what am I gonna do when you gone? I’m gonna be surrounded by nothin’ but suckas and dopefiends.
Eddie (Laughs): I am gonna keep in touch.
Terrell (Puts a hand up): You ain’t gotta make no promises.
Eddie: C’mon, Terrell, I’m not a sucker or a dopefiend. When have I not fulfilled my word to you?
Terrell: I just don’t want this to be the first time. (A silence.) Do you think people go through shit like this in the world?
Eddie: Like what?
Terrell: Do you think when their… when the people they kick it with move away or somethin’ it’s like a…I dunno, a sudden rip on their life, or is it kinda slow like?
Eddie: I dunno, man. I never gave it no thought.
Terrell: We been doin’ this a long time, yeah?
Eddie: Well, other than that stretch where you waited to transfer down here, like fifteen years, I guess.
Terrell: Yeah, but we didn’t really kick it ’til I got here.
Eddie: Yeah, sure. So like a decade then.
Terrell: What was it like when you got here?
Eddie: Well, it was more wide open, know what I mean? They didn’t have all these petty-ass rules like they got now.
Terrell: No, I mean like how did you feel when you got here? You didn’t sorta wish you never came down here, wish you was back where you was?
(A long pause.)
Eddie: I dunno, man. (Beat.) I mean, I knew some of the cats down here and really the only weird shit was bein’ able to come outta your room pretty much whenever.
Terrell: So you didn’t wish they’d send you back?
Eddie: Naw, man, not really. (Beat.) When you first get here the cops are all a buncha pricks ’til they see what you’re on.
Terrell (Nods his head): You right on that. (Beat.) And ain’t that kinda fucked up? These mothafuckas push you justto see how you gonna react. (Shakes his head.) Man…
Eddie: Did they do that shit when we was at man?
Terrell: I don’t remember. Plus, you know, I was different, bein’ so young ‘n all. They treated me way different ’til I was eighteen, and by then they all knew me. (Beat.) Did I ever tell you I had to sneak tobacco? Here I am in this joint with grown-ass men chiefin’ dubs all around me, and they wouldn’t let me buy the shit from the store ’cause it was illegal to sell it to minors!
Eddie (Laughs): And all the gumps gave it to you for nothin’, I bet.
Terrell: Man fuck you. I never took nothin’ from no gump. (Beat.) I used to get it from this old Christian brotha. ‘Charity,’ he called it–even though I gave him coffee and noodles for the shit.
Eddie: Did I know him?
Terrell: Naw, I don’t think so. Timothy Simmons, Brother Timothy.
Edie (Shakes his head): Name rings a bell, I think I heard it before, never knew him.
Terrell: I wonder what ever happened to him. (A long pause.)
Eddie: What the fuck is this? A funeral? (Laughs.)
Terrell: Naw, man, just…man, you know how it is. (The lights dim.)
Purchase Variations on an Undisclosed Location: 2022 Prison Writing Awards Anthology here.