Writing for Justice Fellowship
PEN America’s Writing for Justice Fellowship commissions writers—emerging or established—to create written works of lasting merit that illuminate critical issues related to mass incarceration and catalyze public debate.
The Fellowship aims to harness the power of writers and writing in bearing witness to the societal consequences of mass incarceration by capturing and sharing the stories of incarcerated individuals, their families, communities, and the wider impact of the criminal justice system. Our goal is to ignite a broad, sustained conversation about the dangers of over-incarceration and the imperative to mobilize behind rational and humane policies. As an organization of writers dedicated to promoting free expression and informed discourse, PEN America is honored to have been entrusted by the Art for Justice Fund to engage the literary community in addressing this pressing societal issue.
Meet our inaugural 2018 Writing for Justice cohort here, and learn about our 2019 Fellows, their projects and mentors below.
Curious about where our Writing for Justice Fellowship cohorts are now? Learn more about what they’ve been up to since completing their fellowships.
Applications for the Writing for Justice 2021 Fellowship are open January 15-February 15, 2021. Read the updated program overview and application requirements here.
Meet the 2019-2020 Fellows
Through the voice of a state-raised prisoner, Arthur Longworth will work on Journal of a State-Raised Prisoner in the Age of Mass Incarceration, a book-length compilation of creative nonfiction essays that elucidates the foster-care-to-prison pipeline.
Longworth will be working with journalist Maurice Chammah.
Montclair, New Jersey
Cleyvis Natera’s personal essay will illuminate mass incarceration’s painful impact on members of an Afro-Dominican immigrant family and their surrounding community through the story of her own brother’s arrest for minor offenses and subsequent deportation.
Natera will be working with writer Nelly Rosario.
C.T. Mexica will work on 18 With a Bullet: Or, With Love & Respect, a nonfiction memoir of intergenerational incarceration, anchored in the author’s incarceration from the age of 13 to 21 for acts of mutual violence committed against other bonded males, and transformation to a postdoctoral researcher and emerging writer.
Mexica will be working with memoirist Piper Kerman.
J.D. Mathes will work on In Strange Company, a novel that reveals a free nation’s dark impulse toward punishing the mentally ill and the addicted, told through the story of a young man struggling with the trauma of prison to find peace, grace, and humanity through learning music.
Mathes will be working with writer and editor Kerri Arsenault.
Jonah Mixon-Webster will create Protocol, an immersive two-fold documentary poetics project. The full length hybrid manuscript and digital archive aims to unpack—through dashcam footage, guerrilla audio recordings, arrest documents, and lyrical narration—the procedural relations between police officers and civilians in 21st century America.
Mixon-Webster will be working with the Vera Institute of Justice’s Policing Program Director Rebecca Neusteter.
Justine van der Leun
Brooklyn, New York
Justine van der Leun will combine narrative journalism, primary data collection and analysis, and investigative techniques to report on the structural, historic, cultural, and legal forces behind the criminalization of women’s defense and survival from abuse.
van der Leun will be working with investigative journalist Jordan Smith.
Sterling Cunio will write and produce Austin’s Echo, a cross-time dramatic dialogue between Austin Reed—who in the 1830s was the first African American to write a memoir about his incarceration—and a 21st-century prisoner. The similarities of prison dynamics, reform debates and social issues are compared through poetic narration, theatrical elements and music to demonstrate how prison is virtually the same after 185 years.
Cunio will be working with hip hop theater artist Baba Israel.
Vivian D. Nixon
New York, New York
Vivian D. Nixon will write a personal essay as a precursor to a book-length memoir chronicling her passage from a stable suburban home through phases of mental illness, addiction, incarceration and re-invention. The work exposes the complex individual and structural drivers of mass criminalization through the lens of race and gender.
Nixon will be working with writer Kiese Laymon.
2019 Writing For Justice Finalists
|Ashia Ajani||Ashley Dixon|
|Eli Day||Michael Fischer|
|Kima Jones||John Lennon|
|Leo Oladimu||Natyna Osborne|
|Stephanie Rolin||Purvi Shah|
|Tria Blu Wakpa|
2019 Writing For Justice Semi Finalists
|Chandra Bozelko||Brandon Brown|
|Joan Dempsey||Ashleigh Dye|
|Abdiel Echevarria-Caban||Gregory Goodman|
|Jeff Kronenfeld||Jason McCall|
|Alessandra Nolan||Manuel Olivera|
|Andrea Ritchie||Nomi Sofer|
|Renia White||Nicole Zelniker|
View the inaugural 2018-2019 Fellows
Where Are They Now? Updates and Highlights From Past Writing For Justice Fellows
- Published a variety of articles, including “What Coronavirus Quarantine Looks Like in Prison” in The Marshall Project, a contribution to “Pandemic Journal, April 6–12” in The New York Review of Books, and “How to Survive Supermax” in The New Republic.
- Featured on “Lockdown while locked up,” an episode of Vox Media’s podcast Today Explained.
- Featured, alongside Fellow Justine van der Leun, in PEN America’s World Press Freedom Day campaign, an effort from our Membership and National Engagement team that celebrated excellent local reporting across the country during the pandemic’s building challenges for journalists.
- Placed her fellowship project, “The Inheritance of Bone,” an essay on immigration and brother’s deportation, in This Alien Nation’s immigrant writers anthology (forthcoming 2021).
- Sold debut novel, Neruda on the Park, at an auction to Penguin Random House’s Ballantine Books. The publisher described the novel as “a fierce exploration on race, class, community, and the meaning of home, as a Dominican family in New York City who, faced with encroaching gentrification in their neighborhood, take radically different paths.” Slated for publication spring/summer 2022.
- Co-founded Love As A Kind of Cure, a social transformation enterprise that seeks to dismantle social injustices one cause at a time.
- Acquired an agent, Ian Bonaparte (Janklow & Nesbit), who will be bringing C.T.’s memoir and fellowship project to auction in the near future.
- Will be joining Mexican authors Elmer Mendoza and Eduardo Antonio Parra in facilitating workshops for incarcerated youth across Mexico and Central America.
- Is in the process of planning upcoming transnational free speech events stemming from the assassination of journalist Javier Valdez, and is convening presenters and other scholarly advisors to facilitate discussions connected to Arizona State University Art Museum’s Undoing Time: Art + Histories of Incarceration exhibition (September 2021 through February 2022).
- Published an essay about addiction and mass incarceration, “We All Fall Down,” in Fordham University’s CURA literary magazine and finished fellowship project, the novel In Strange Company, in addition to a photobook Military Industrial Prison Complex Fallen, directly inspired by the fellowship.
- Optioned a film, In the Desert of Dark and Light, about border issues and migration that will soon begin production, and a short script acquired to be performed for a street theater group.
- Wrote and shot a 13-minute video documentary about writing for social justice for the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, presented on utilizing personal experience to create compelling stories for justice for the Writers of Kern and will be teaching “Writing For Social Justice” at the Levan Institute at Bakersfield College in Spring 2021.
- Published fellowship project “Protocol: Bait/Switch,” the first installment of an immersive documentary project that aims to unpack the procedural relations between police officers and civilians in 21st-century America, in The Rumpus.
- Published “The Hauntologies of Slavery” in The Yale Review, a dreamscape that follows Jonah on a journey in tracing his lineage on both sides of the slavery narrative through various landscapes, concluding with a visit to the Equal Justice Initiative’s museum and memorial as part of the fellowship’s roster of activities in Winter 2020.
- Thanks to being awarded the prestigious Windham Campbell Prize, Jonah has launched The Center for Imaginative & Economic Freedoms, a new nonprofit organization to support the creative talents and livelihoods of the people in his hometown of Flint, MI.
- After sending 5,098 surveys to incarcerated women across 22 states to understand their pathways to prison, Justine published her Writing For Justice project, “No Choice But To Do It: Why Women Go To Prison” in a joint release with The New Republic and The Appeal.
- Published a variety of pieces on COVID-19’s impact in prisons, including “Confinement and Contagion” in The New York Review of Books, “I hope our daughters will not be punished” in Dissent, “The Evidence Against Her” in GEN magazine, and “Death of a Survivor” in The New Republic.
- Through lockdowns, wildfires, and COVID-19 threats at Oregon State Penitentiary, Sterling staged a works-in-progress tele-performance of Austin’s Echo, a cross-time dramatic dialogue between Austin Reed—who in the 1830s was the first African American to write a memoir about his incarceration—and a 21st-century prisoner.
- Published a reflective personal essay, “Tragedy’s Silver Year,” on crime and redemption in Fordham University’s CURA literary magazine and op-ed, “To those behind bars or patrolling them, COVID-19 represents a shared threat,” in The Oregonian.
- Was awarded a competitive 2019 Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship.
- Published two poems, “Black Storm” and “Mutiny” in Michigan Quarterly Review’s Fall 2020 issue on persecution, edited by Writing For Justice Fellow Reginald Dwayne Betts.
- Edited and published What We Know: Solutions from our Experiences in the Justice System (New Press, 2020), which brings together over two dozen recommendations from justice-involved individuals about how best to reform the system through the lens of policy, informed by their lived experiences. The publication features three Writing For Justice Fellows: CT Mexica, Arthur Longworth, and Thomas Bartlett Whitaker.
- Published the article “COVID-19 highlights the need to protect health for all by ending mass incarceration” in the Sacramento Bee.
- Published fellowship project, “The Castaways: How Alabama’s Habitual Offender Law Threw Away the Least Among Us,” a longform reportage piece on men sentenced to life without parole in Alabama, in The Daily Beast.
- Published “Angola’s Angst, A Disquieting Tour Through the Largest Maximum Security Prison in The Nation,” an essay based on the Writing for Justice Fellowship’s trip to the Angola Louisiana State Penitentiary, in The Bitter Southerner. Beth has also published pieces in various news outlets, including “Alabama Officials Executed Nathaniel Woods Despite Claims of Innocence.” Then, “Against His Religious Beliefs, They Autopsied His Body” in The Appeal, “Op-Ed: Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide was part of a much bigger crisis in U.S. jails and prisons” in the Los Angeles Times, and “Resuming parole hearings is not enough” in the Alabama Political Reporter, among others.
- Stepped into her role as investigative reporter with the Campaign For Smart Justice, a grant-funded arm of the ACLU.
- Published his novel Winter Counts (Ecco), which was called “an addictive and groundbreaking debut thriller set on a Native American reservation” by New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice; has garnered high praise from outlets including The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, USA Today, San Francisco Chronicle, Booklist, O, the Oprah Magazine, and named a best book of 2020 by Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, NPR, Amazon, Sun Sentinel, BOLO Books, Deadly Pleasures, CrimeReads, LitReactor, The Buzz Magazines, She Reads, Tribal College Journal, and Goodreads.
- Published creative nonfiction, “Carlisle Longings,” in Shenandoah Fall 2019, which was longlisted for the 2018 PRISM International Creative Nonfiction Prize.
- Published various nonfiction, essays, and blog posts, including “This 19th-Century Law Helps Shape Criminal Justice in Indian Country” in The New York Times, “Seven Essential Native American Crime Novels” in The Strand Magazine, “Why Indigenous Crime Fiction Matters” in CrimeReads, and “A Year in Reading” in The Millions, among others.
- Sold his novel All Day Is a Long Time to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The novel follows an unnamed 20-year-old protagonist as he struggles with drug addiction, incarceration, joblessness, homelessness, and mental illness. David worked on the novel for the fellowship, set to be released in Fall 2021.
- Published poems in The Nation, Hayden’s Ferry Review, 433 Magazine, and Michigan Quarterly Review (which also featured an interview with Justin).
- Participated, from prison, in a roundtable on poetry and prison abolition via The Poetry Project.
- Published her fellowship project, “Desert bloom: My wedding day, inside a California prison,” a personal essay about a prison wedding and co-parenting with an incarcerated partner, in Salon.
- Contributed an essay to the Vera Institute of Justice’s Motion for Justice project, an initiative focused on centering racial equity in prosecution reform.
- Contributed a chapter in a forthcoming Haymarket Press book (title TBD), an anthology of writers of color on abortion, pregnancy, birth, and loss of pregnancy, as well as a piece to (Super)Vision: On Motherhood and Surveillance by Sophie Hamacher, forthcoming in 2021.
- Published Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family (Scribner, 2019) to widespread acclaim—its prose described by Publishers Weekly as “a stunning mix of internal monologue and historical and religious references. . . shin[ing] an important light on the generational problems of America’s oft-forgotten urban communities”—in venues including The New York Times Book Review, USA Today, The Boston Globe, and TIME.
- Adapted “Twelve Minutes and a Life,” a mediative, honoring, and profoundly moving longform profile on Ahmaud Abery, originally published in Runner’s World, for a 16-minute segment on This American Life. These are among other recently published articles in Harper’s Bazaar, Men’s Health, his column in Esquire, among others.
- Received a Cullman Center Fellowship (2019) and Creative Capital Award (2020).
- Published co-written essay “All Jails Fit to Build” in The Brooklyn Rail with Jarrod Shanahan.
- Published co-written op-ed “Opinion: NYC Can’t Jail Its Way Out of a Public Health Crisis” in City Limits with Jarrod Shanahan.
- Published co-written op-ed “Release People From Jail to Prevent a Coronavirus Catastrophe Behind Bars” in Shadowproof with Jose Saldana and Komrade Z.
- Published “Awakening to a Mass-Supervision Crisis,” her fellowship-supported longform essay exploring the struggles of women on parole, in The Atlantic.
- Contributed project research to serve as source material for a forthcoming PEN America-supported performance and advocacy collaboration written by Mahogany Browne.
- Received a Fulbright Scholarship for her project, “Exploring the Relationship between Imprisonment and Intimate Partner Violence in the Lives of Ugandan Women,” and through this opportunity, worked with women in Ugandan prisons.
- Published his highly acclaimed third collection of poems, Felon (Norton, 2019), which garnered press in The New Yorker, NPR, The New York Times Book Review, WNYC, and Poetry Foundation, among others, and was described by Carolyn Forché of The New York Times as “a powerful work of lyric art. It is also a tour de force indictment of the carceral industrial state.”
- Launched The Million Book Project, which will bring curated 500-book literary time-capsules to 1,000 prisons and juvenile detention centers to each state in the United States, plus Washington, D.C. and Puerto Rico.
- Published “Kamala Harris, Mass Incarceration and Me” in The New York Times.
- Has found homes for articles in Guernica (forthcoming), The Crime Report, and the anthology What We Know, published by The New Press and edited by Writing for Justice Fellow Vivian D. Nixon.w
- Regularly publishes on Minutes Before Six, the blog he founded that hosts writing by incarcerated writers.
- Still living in solitary confinement, Thomas is raising awareness for the negative consequences of participating in literary activities.
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