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Words Behind Bars: Pen America’s Prison Writing Awards

“Protecting free expression and celebrating literature.”



With 655 prisoners per 100,000 of the national population in 2020, it is no surprise that the United States holds the global title for highest prisoner rate, sparking what some have called the era of mass incarceration. Many have railed against this, veering towards a humanisation of those in exile and isolation by letting their silenced voices be rightfully heard. Pen America recognises these voices and has sculpted their motto around defending free expression, supporting persecuted writers and promoting literary culture.


Amongst other initiatives such as the Prison Writing Mentor Scheme, one way in which Pen America aims to fulfil their motto is through their annual contest, the Prison Writing Awards.


First, Second, and Third place prizes are awarded across five categories (Poetry, Edward Bunker Prize Fiction, Essay, Memoir, Drama) with additional winners for the Fielding A. Dawson Prizes, and the winners’ works are published into a paperback anthology each year.


Receiving over 1,000 entries from imprisoned writers this year, the contest aims to provide an opportunity for community, an uplifting of literary voices and a shedding of hardened perceptions of those incarcerated.


Since its founding in 1971, thousands upon thousands of inmates have put pen to paper and expressed themselves through the written word, in turn creating a plethora of outstanding fiction, non-fiction and poetry. While the monetary value of the award might not match that of other prestigious prizes, you simply can't put a price on the positive impact that creative writing can have towards one's mental health. For those who are incarcerated, physical freedom may remain locked away, but the freedom to write knows no limits.

The admirable thing about Pen America and its annual contest is that it strives to foster a safe environment for self-reflection and encourages those to explore their creativity, meanwhile strengthening knowledge, insight and communication skills.


Obviously, isolation behind bars can be detrimental towards the mental health of inmates, particularly if connection to the outside world is no longer clear. However, every human has the right to mental wellbeing. Access to methods and resources that aid rehabilitation should be aplenty and prison inmates are no exception. The opportunity to channel the flurry of thought and emotion directly into words serves as a welcome stress relief to many. For those confined, it can harbour a positive influence on a difficult day-to-day routine.


We see that Pen America’s literary contest provides a voice for the incarcerated through the poetry and essays inmates have written in the previous years. For example, 2019’s first place winner for poetry was Jevon Jackson whose poetry focused on the various types of prisons in America. Perhaps this was his way of expressing the different prisons he had been to in his lifetime. Being transferred from prison to prison can take a toll on one's mental health, so for Jackson to have the opportunity to express his concerns and experiences would likely have eased the problems he found difficult to discuss in a normal conversation.


Further proving that this literary award is a fantastic way for prisoners to express themselves and explore their creativity is inmate Michael Kaiser’s essay, Thorazine, Haldol & Coffee: My life in a prison mental health ward. The detailed essay discusses Kaiser’s life in prison as an inmate who was offered a job to work in the prison mental health award. Kaiser takes his readers by the hand on his journey of working with mental health patients and he discusses the impact this had on him as well as mental health illnesses such as schizophrenia. Kaiser writes his essay in a way that provides a window into the life of prisoners and how they get through every day. Therefore, Pen America’s Prison Writing Awards are truly invaluable as they commit to providing a voice to prisoners, despite their backgrounds.


As such, what is demonstrated by Pen America is the undoubtable prevalence and importance of free speech. They do so by placing credence upon the voices of those currently incarcerated in America, thus rightfully allowing them access to a world of which they have been previously denied. With an increasing number of the American population incarcerated, Pen America’s award is paving the way for better representation within the literary award community and a more inclusive literary sphere. In this regard, Pen America goes far beyond the exclusive boundaries often enforced throughout literary awards. As their mission statement sets out:


“Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible.”


For more information on the prison writing programme, please see here!


Preorder a copy of Breathe into the Ground, Pen America’s Prison Writing Awards 2020 anthology here!


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