As a new team, we came into PEN America’s Prison Writing Program just as the winners of our annual Prison Writing Contest had been decided, and it was our honor and pleasure to package, sign and send the congratulatory letters. With predictable frequency, many of the letters we send come back to us emblazoned with the yellow sticker of return-to-sender. Usually mail is returned due to one of many prison correspondence issues. With the hundreds of letters and submissions we receive monthly, we are used to inventing creative ways of handling boomerang mail. This time, the label read deceased. Michael Lambrix, our third place winner in the nonfiction essay category, was executed on death row in the time between submitting his manuscript and winning the prize.

This sobering moment opened up a series of questions that guide our daily work: How do we respect the gravity of the stories we receive? How do we support the voices of those vanished from our society through incarceration? In what ways do the contributions of marginalized writers enrich, challenge, and improve our understanding of the world? Written from the last cell before death, Lambrix’s story exposes the possibility for empathy and compassion to be uncovered within an unimaginable moment of mortal terror. As we are continually faced with the intensity of an unrelentingly punitive and draconian prison system, as well as the complexity and confronting nature of crime itself, Lambrix’s story reminds us of the urgency to bear witness to the overwhelming spectrum of the human experience, even—perhaps especially—the most difficult parts.

After over 30 years of incarceration, Alejo Da’wud Rodriguez, a four-time winner of our contest, opened our Break Out: Voices From Inside event at the 2018 World Voices Festival, where we showcased the work from the Prison Writing Contest archives. He spoke powerfully about the strange relief he felt on his first night in prison, reaching out to touch the four walls boxing him in. For the first time in his life, he was able to see and feel the walls that had been erected metaphorically, long before his arrest. Angel Ayala, a member of our mentor program, allowed us to share a letter where he described the process of self-reflection within those walls:

You know how in our brains we have these “mirror cells,” which make us smile when others smile, or subconsciously mirror the face and emotions we see? I think that for people in captivity, who are deprived of normal interactions and have very limited human contact, they begin to mirror the metal and cement, its grayness, coldness, its blank lifelessness—and we mirror the cell, we become cells, which are hollow and gray and designed to destroy humanity.

Though prison, and the people it houses, are removed from public view, prisons—spiritually, metaphorically—are also everywhere. And though the experience of incarceration is a distinct one, the emotions expressed are universal, though often rendered in high definition hyper-reality. Our contest-winning works range from harrowing to gut-bustingly funny. We read horror stories that move us to our core about institutionalized violence, brutal conditions, and the systemic issues that shamefully position America as the world’s leading incarcerator. But what buoys these writings are the threads of connection interwoven in the text: unlikely friendships, the birds outside the window, family returning, redemption, self-reflection, tremendous transformation. How do we also uplift the joy and beauty expressed in the writing we receive? Though all of these writers are writing from prison, they are, of course, unique, complex individuals with dynamic and vibrant identities and expression. This is why we view our work as a connective experience, rather than a charitable one, where reciprocal learning, sharing, and growth occur. As our mirror cells indicate, it is imperative that we stay engaged with each other’s humanity for the health of our emotional lives and the health of our greater society.

Our contest is deliberated over by the Prison Writing Committee, who have judged thousands of manuscripts over the years, some members for over two decades. The Committee readers offer tremendous time, care, and energy to not only identify the winners, but to write personal messages of encouragement and comments to non-winners. Among the non-winners, the Committee looks for earnest and ambitious new writers who can be directed to the mentorship program. The dedication and commitment of the Prison Writing Committee is the engine of this entire operation.

It is the first year we are presenting these winners without the longtime guidance of Jackson Taylor and Tim Small, who worked with unwavering commitment to support and amplify the voices of incarcerated writers through the PEN Prison Writing Program. The program’s reputation within the prison arts movement is unparalleled as an early innovator, and it is a deeply meaningful experience for many writers behind the walls. It is no small task to create a system of engagement in a landscape nearly completely devoid of technology. Operating through mailed letters, Jackson and Tim orchestrated this program into what we see today. In a transition meeting, Jackson shared his guiding question: What is best for the men and women we work with? It is this care and intention that allowed the beloved and transformative program to touch so many lives. We are grateful to Jackson and Tim for creating this powerful legacy, and we’re proud to carry their work forward.

When we publish this work in the late summer and fall, we hope you will bring your full humanity to the reading, and we’ll be inviting you to share any responses to the work with us to, in turn, share with the writers in prison. For now, please join us in celebrating the announcement of our winners of the 2018 PEN Prison Writing Contest.

View the list of our 2018 PEN Prison Writing Contest winners »