2023 PEN America Prison Writing Contest Winners Announced

Florida Poet Catherine LaFleur Wins New Prize Honoring an Incarcerated Women Writer

 Incarcerated Writers in 15 States Win Coveted Awards In Drama, Fiction, Nonfiction-Essay, Nonfiction-Memoir, and Poetry

 (KY, IL, IA, CA, NY, MN, NC, FL, OK, PA TX, LA, MI, MO, WA) 

(New York)— Thirty-four incarcerated writers have been named winners of PEN America’s 2023 Prison Writing Contest, among the oldest of its kind, in five categories: poetry, fiction, nonfiction-essay, nonfiction-memoir and drama. This year, the free expression and writers’ group added a new award that honors an incarcerated woman writer. Overall the winning topics include the mishandling of Covid infections within prisons, relationships that transcend prison walls, childhood trauma, untreated mental illness, and the power of telling your own story from prison.

Catherine LaFleur is the first winner of the award specifically for an imprisoned woman writer; the new Chevigny Prize is named in honor of professor and activist Bell Gale Chevigny (1936-2021), a central figure and mentor for PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Program since its founding in the early 1970s.

LaFleur, who is imprisoned in Florida’s Homestead Correctional Center for women, was honored in the nonfiction-memoir category for her piece “Denouement,” which explores how the prison bureaucracy systemically silences and endangers incarcerated individuals. The memoir moves slowly and methodically, as if the author is burdened with something heavy — as if she, herself, carries the carceral system’s guilt on her back. And yet, with her repeated line, “Cheryl Weimar is not dead” and all that follows, the author tries to find a glimmer of hope in a system that is built to feel utterly hopeless.

LaFleur earlier this year was named the 2023-24 Luis Angel Hernandez Poet Laureate, named for an incarcerated poet who died in 2018. The poet laureateship is an honorary two-year position awarded to an incarcerated poet within the Florida Department of Corrections. Read more about LaFleur in this interview with PEN America.

La Fleur and Marina Bueno who won second prize for nonfiction-memoir both participate in Exchange for Change, a South Florida nonprofit offering educational and creative opportunities for incarcerated people.

For over 50 years, PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing program has championed the literary art of imprisoned writers from across the country. The program pairs incarcerated writers with mentors from PEN America’s writing community. The contest is one of the earliest outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population.

Last year, hundreds of writers in prisons and jails across the country submitted works of literary art to be considered for the 2023 Prison Writing Contest Award, which includes both a monetary prize and publication in PEN America’s Sixth Annual Prison Writing Awards Anthology, to be published this December.

Robert Pollock, program manager for the Prison and Justice Writing program, said: “The extraordinary quality of the writing and the subject matter are evident in the judges’ choices. That these writers must overcome challenges within the prison systems to write is even more of a testament to their commitment to craft and the imaginative foundation of writing.”

Winners this year come from KY, IL, IA, CA, NY, MN, NC, FL, OK, PA TX, LA, MI, MO, WA.

The winners, with first-place winners’ self-provided bios, are as follows:

DRAMA

First Place—  

The Story of Violence” by “Writing Team” Toussaint Daniels (submitter and “lead writer”), Jomar Lopez, Timothy Jones, Andre Alexander; and “contributors “Justin Dismuke, James Warren, Calvin Curtis, Tarius Washington, and Brian Beals.

Toussaint Daniels has been incarcerated for over 24 years. He’s a co-founder and facilitator of Dixon Performing Arts, an individual-in-custody lead theater workshop in Dixon Correctional Center, a program whose chief aim is to provide therapeutic transformational rehabilitation through the arts.

In addition to being a writer and a restorative justice advocate, Toussaint is also an Illinois Prison Project Navigator, chosen by IPP to help other individuals-in-custody understand their rights as they steer their way while inside IDOC.

Second Place— 

David E. Babb, “I’m Nobody

Third Place—

Joshua Peterson, “An Infernal Internal Dialogue”

*Fielding Dawson Award—

Rashuan Black, “The Bogeyman”

Honorable Mentions—

Kevin Potts, “Be Patient with Me”

Burl N. Corbett, “Riding the Thumb, With Angels”

FICTION

First Place—Lawson Strickland, “In The Cemetery Where My Sins Are Buried”

Lawson Strickland’s short story, “In the Cemetery Where My Sins are Buried,” follows the internal dialogue of an executioner as he wrestles with the morality of capital punishment. Through this exploration, Strickland writes with a sense of tenderness, humanizing those he calls “the condemned,” and shedding light on the unnatural and unjustifiable ways humans have learned to kill each other.

A native Virginian, Strickland joined the U.S. Army at the age of 17 and served from 1988 to 1992. Transferred from Germany to Ft. Polk, Louisiana, Strickland was honorably discharged and subsequently arrested, charged, and convicted of 1st degree murder stemming from a bank robbery, leaving behind his wife and daughter. Strickland is now in the 30th year of a life sentence at the Louisiana State Penitentiary. The first 23 years of that sentence were spent in solitary confinement where he wrote, read, and taught himself painting until being released to general population. In 2016, Strickland was awarded second place for Fiction in the PEN Prison Writing Contest for “September’s Last Day.” Since then, he has graduated from the prison’s Industrial Generator Vocational School, served as a Department of Corrections certified educational tutor, currently serves as a certified mentor conducting pre-release rehabilitation classes, and works full-time as a contributor for The Angolite, the prison’s criminal justice magazine.

Second Place—Crystal Avilla, “Things that go Thump in the Night”

In her short story, “Things that Go Thump in the Night,” Crystal Avilla explores the ways in which trauma manifests itself into a monster nobody else can see. Written with a sense of urgency, Avilla sheds light on the visceral effects of mental illness, and the consequences of asking for help in a system built to segregate rather than rehabilitate.

Third Place— Peter Dunne, “The Visit”

Peter Dunne’s short story, “The Visit,” examines the nature of the Family Reunion Program and how love can traverse boundaries in spite of the institutional borders that are built to keep people apart.

Fielding Dawson Award— Aaron Hill, “Guilt

In his pensive yet thrilling short story, “Guilt,” Aaron Hill personifies “guilt” as a merciless masked keeper, illustrating the ways in which remorse can be one’s own worst tormentor.

Honorable Mentions—

            Fernando Rivas, “Contraband”

In his science fiction short story, “Contraband,” Fernando Rivas demonstrates how fiction can illuminate truths in ways memoir can’t. Notable for its experimental hybrid structure, Rivas examines prison power dynamics and how those in desperate circumstances are often the most vulnerable to manipulation. Through these tensions, Rivas sheds light on the ways society shames and silos conflict while simultaneously fetishizing it.

Matthew Mendoza, “Hinges & Runners

In his short and seething story, “Hinges & Runners,” Matthew Mendoza writes about a rebel, her thirst for danger, and her longing to get caught.

NONFICTION—ESSAY

First Place—

Tomas Keen, “What Really Complicates Writing About Prison”

Using Paul Slovic’s “psychic numbing” theory as a foundation for his thesis, Tomas Keen’s essay, “What Really Complicates Writing About Prison,” explores likeability, the bounds of human empathy, and the way writing can expand these limitations. In a society that normalizes mass incarceration, Keen argues that writing can be used to humanize and amplify incarcerated stories. By encouraging his readers to listen to historically silenced voices, Keen demonstrates the ways in which empathy can turn into action.

Tomas Keen is a writer from Washington State, focusing on issues of social justice and legal reform. He is a PEN Prison Writing Award winner and has published essays in The Economist’s 1843 Magazine, Inquest, Open Campus, and elsewhere.

Second Place—

Paul Brown, “Do Not Resuscitate”

Paul Brown’s devastatingly solemn essay, “Do Not Resuscitate” sheds light on the prevalence of suicide within the U.S. prison system. Brown writes like he is in mourning, both for those who have taken their own lives, and for those who have tried. And yet, with sincerity, compassion, and stoicism, Brown reminds his readers that even though the Department of Corrections has erased suicide numbers, those who have passed will always be remembered, immortalized in his writing.

Third Place—

Mario Castro, “Tell Me Why It Doesn’t End”

In response to Valeria Luiselli’s essay, “Tell Me How It Ends,” Mario Castro’s “Tell Me Why It Doesn’t End,” explores American hypocrisies: the contradictions between conquest, territorial expansion, and anti-immigration policies, and the way a paper questionnaire can be a child’s key to survival. With urgency, Castro argues that we must protect the “most vulnerable among us” in order to make any meaningful steps towards progress.          

Honorable Mentions—

Brian Beals with Peter Sanders, “An Insider’s Perspective of the IDOC’s Creation and Its Fundamental Failings”

Written in collaboration after a thirty year friendship, authors Brian Beals and Peter Sanders explore the systemic shortcomings of the Illinois Department of Corrections in their essay, “An Insider’s Perspective of the IDOC’s Creation and Its Fundamental Failings.” After years of organizing, Beals and Sanders explain the ways in which a history of power shifts in the IDOC shut down programs and left young incarcerated people to fall through the cracks. As activists, they urge IDOC officials to support “prisoner-led programming” so incarcerated organizers can respond to the direct needs of their community.

Emilio Fernandez, “Anatomy of a Cell: Four Ways”

In his experimental essay, “Anatomy of a Cell: Four Ways,” Emilio Fernandez walks the reader through all of the objects that make up his cell and individually examines their emotional histories. By shedding light on the small details that often go overlooked, Fernandez explores the greater psychological and social implications of a prison cell. And yet, he also demonstrates the way one can find a sense of identity in the things that surround them, no matter how sparse, and no matter how worn.

Franklin Lee, “Continuously Dumbfounded Confused. . .and Repeat. . . and Repeat. . .My CDCR COVID, Experience Round 2”

Franklin Lee’s candid essay, “Continuously Dumbfounded Confused. . .and Repeat. . . and Repeat. . .My CDCR COVID, Experience Round 2,” explores his traumatic experience living in the CDCR quarantine zones, exacerbated by internal power dynamics and officer negligence. With a keen understanding of the social tensions within prison, Lee sheds light on the ways in which the carceral system sacrifices incarcerated lives for profit.

NONFICTION—MEMOIR

First Place —  Kevin Schaeffer, “Songs for the Dead”

Divided into three parts and organized by year, Kevin Shaeffer’s piece, “Songs for the Dead,” reads almost like a diary, in which he quietly ponders his relationship to music and the way it shapes and strengthens his sense of personhood. And yet, though he clings to this connection to his past, he comes to learn that music only deepens the rift between who he once was and who he’ll soon be.

Originally from Oley, PA, K. Robert Schaeffer has been incarcerated since 2009. In addition to the seven awards he’s received from the PEN Prison Writing contest since 2017, his work has appeared in The Gettysburg Review, Barzakh, The Iconoclast, Rain Shadow Review, and Bridges. He’s currently at work on his first prison memoir, “Scan Before Reading,” about life under the mail scanning policies adopted by the PADOC in 2018.

Second Place — Marina Bueno, “The Things I’ve Learned in Prison”

In her memoir “The Things I’ve Learned in Prison,” Marina Bueno writes about how the ring on her finger serves as a symbol of both love and defiance. With the support of her community, Bueno finds ways to cherish love in the face of alienation and abusive power.

Third Place — Wes Lee/Bryon Petitt, “Maybe Tomorrow”

In his memoir, “Maybe Tomorrow,” writer and veteran Wes Lee writes about the ramifications of untreated trauma after the war. In doing so, Lee illuminates the different ways one can feel trapped inside their own body, both inside and outside of a prison cell.

Fielding Dawson Award — Dontez Daniels, “Why My Black Life Don’t Matter”

Driven by a burning passion for racial justice and a deep-seated sense of loss, Dontez Daniels turns his memoir, “Why My Black Life Don’t Matter,” into a call to action, outlining the ways the United States carceral system has been built upon a foundation of systemic and institutionalized racism.

Honorable Mentions —

Andrew Suh, “Prison Dad”

Andrew Suh’s piece, “Prison Dad,” dives into the ways a shared cultural heritage can create new grounds for community care. This memoir serves as a meditation on friendship, and how, through small acts of kindness, one can rediscover a sense of family amidst vast isolation.

Geneva Phillips, “Holding”

Grounded in a deep sense of longing, “Holding” sheds light on the obstacles that are put in place to keep those incarcerated from accessing quality medical services. By exploring her experience in a hospital holding cell, Geneva Phillips tells a story of a community working together to care for both those who died and for those they left behind.

Anthony Rhodd, “The Dream of Fields”

Anthony Rhodd’s flash memoir piece, “The Dream of Fields,” recounts a dream in which he, as a young boy, hits his first homerun. In doing so, he explores the nuances of the subconscious and the way trauma can resurface in unexpected ways. And yet, in an attempt to understand the impermanent, Rhodd reminds the reader that the stars only can outshine city lights in your dreams. 

POETRY

First Place— Erik Tschekunow, “This Call Is from an Inmate at a Federal Prison (‘They say you eventually get desperate’)”

In his poem, “This Call is from an Inmate at a Federal Prison: They say you eventually get desperate,” Erik Tschekunow invites the reader to ponder the nature of relationships that transcend prison walls and the ephemerality of freedom.

After a six year sentence, Eric Tschekunow was released this year from federal prison in Minnesota to a residential re-entry center.

Second Place— B. Batchelor,  “The Self as an Unlit Wick in Bed ”

In his poem, “The Self as an Unlit Wick in Bed,” B. Batchelor writes of a restless night in a cold prison cell. Driven by a palpable need to write and a keen eye for tactile imagery, B. Batchelor explores the intersection between identity and exile, and the ways in which one might lose their sense of self among the ruins of winter.

Third Place— Third Prize: Matthew A. Stoy,  “Keepers”

By quietly reflecting on a life before incarceration, Matthew A. Stoy sheds light on the ways the carceral system reduces everything and everyone to a memory. Written with a withering sense of nostalgia, “Keepers” explores what it means to let people go, and how one may stubbornly love someone no matter how many times they have lost them.

Fielding Dawson Award — Kenneth Meyers, “I Vaguely Recall What Flowers Are For

In his poem, “I Vaguely Recall What Flowers Are For,” Kenneth Meyers finds parallels between one’s life as an incarcerated person and the wildflowers that dare to bloom in the garden bed. In doing so, Meyers turns the poem into a deeper exploration of authority, security, and of the courage it takes to find color amidst concrete.

Honorable Mentions—

Joel Davis, “Mythos”

Joel Davis’s “Mythos” examines how prison strips you of your name and the sense of personhood that comes with it. In this poem, Davis contemplates how one can find identity inside prison, and what they might be willing to sacrifice in order to keep it.

Fausto Cabrebra, “Not Pictured”

In his poem, “Not Pictured,” C. Fausto Cabrebra writes about what it means to be reduced to words on a page. In doing so, he urges the reader to contemplate the consequences of stereotypes; of being without a safe sense of place; of being erased, unseen, and displaced.

Robert McCracken, “Where I Come From”

With each repeated line in Robert McCracken’s poem “Where I Come From,” comes a vivid portrait of a boy doing his best to survive. Through these portraits, the reader begins to taste the ice tea that clinks in its glass and smell the asphalt as it burns under the heat, sinking deeper and deeper into the boy’s childhood. “Where I Come From” is a triumph in sensory detail, but most importantly, it invites the reader to ponder deeper questions of poverty, salvation, and community care.

On  December 7, the anthology of prison writings will be celebrated along with this year’s winning entries at the annual BREAK OUT event. More information about the event will be forthcoming.

About Prison and Justice Writing at PEN America

For five decades, PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing program has amplified the work of thousands of writers who are creating while incarcerated in the United States. By providing resources, mentorship, and audiences outside the walls, we help these writers to join and enrich the broader literary community. Committed to the freedom to write in U.S. prisons as a critical free expression issue of our time, we leverage the transformative possibilities of writing to raise public consciousness about the societal implications of mass incarceration and support the development of justice-involved literary talent.

The program includes the following initiatives:

PEN Prison Writing Contest: one of the longest-running outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population

Prison Writing Mentor Program: over 300 working writers and 300 incarcerated writers working together toward individualized literary goals and cultivating an engaged literary community through and behind the walls

Writing for Justice Fellowship: a commission for emerging or established writers to create written works of lasting merit that illuminate critical issues related to mass incarceration and catalyze public debate

Works of Justice Publications: an online series that features content connected to our department’s programming, reflecting on the relationship between writing and incarceration

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. To learn more visit PEN.org

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 21-247-5057

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