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On Reading Prison Writing: Where To Find It and What To Read

Some names that come to mind when you think about prison writing might include Martin Luther King, Jr. and Angela Davis, or, more recently, Lil Wayne and Gucci Mane. Their stories exemplify the range of texts that come out of the prison system, by way of both activism and memoir. But what about those who are in prison right now? I’m providing a list here of ways to read imprisoned writers by reading their work.

The most famous organization involved with this type of work is probably PEN America’s Prison Writing Program, which was started in 1971. It has three main ways to engage imprisoned people with writing. They have a handbook for writing, an annual writing contest, and a mentorship program that offers workshopping. They post their contest winners for poetry, fiction, essay, memoir, and drama every March.

Prison Writers has a great site that publishes and pays writers who are in prison. Their goal is to expose what goes on in prison. These essays range from topics like physical living conditions to coping with long-term imprisonment. Right now, unfortunately, they’re not taking submissions because they are in need of more volunteers to work with them.

Prison Writes offers writing workshops to imprisoned people at different organizations. The themes of these workshops include therapeutic writing, advocacy, and memoir. They also have a blog that publishes imprisoned or previously imprisoned writers. These posts discuss problems with sentencing, issues relating to education in prison, and organization updates.

The Marshall Project also has a section on their site entitled Life Inside, which are personal essays written with by people who have first person accounts of prison, including those who have gone to prison, taught there, or work there. Some of these essays cover forced labor, romantic relationships, and dealing with death. This rest of the site also has many articles on various aspects of the prison industrial system.

Writing to imprisoned people is the most interactive way to engage. If you don’t personally know anyone in prison, there are a few sites that can match you up with people who are looking for pen pals. Prison Writes has a pen pal program called Project Solidarity. Write A Prisoner and Prisoners Project also have ones that you can pick people’s profiles.

The U.S. government is always finding new ways to diminish the intellectual integrity of imprisoned people. Respecting prison writing is one important way to engage with their ideas in their own words.