PEN Prison Writing Awards

The PEN American Center, an association of writers working for freedom of expression and human rights, has just presented its annual Prison Writing Awards for the best poetry, fiction and essays by inmates in the U.S. prison system. The stories of long-term inmates reveal that in a misguided attempt to be “tough on crime,” states keep cutting back on educational and rehabilitative programs for prisoners.

We’ve all heard the popular gripe (heck, I used to believe it myself) that society’s deadbeats shouldn’t get an education “for free” while hard-working people can barely afford theirs. Let me tell you, folks, college tuition isn’t a quarter-million dollars because some poor lifer in Florida is getting too much writing paper. Such myths represent an age-old strategy to set disadvantaged groups off against each other, squabbling over limited resources while the CEOs, politicians and lobbyists are rigging the system in their favor.

But don’t just believe me. Go visit a prison in your area, or join PEN’s program to mentor an incarcerated writer (no travel required). You’ll be amazed at how this so-called Christian nation throws away so many precious lives.

Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Charles P. Norman, 2008 winner in the Memoir category for “Fighting the Ninja”, a graphic account of how HIV/AIDS is allowed to spread through the prison population.

Those on the “outside” can help by demanding that state legislators refocus on education for prisoners and not confuse it with “soft on crime” attitudes. When we had Pell grants and college classes for prisoners, I don’t know how many times I heard guards and others complain they had to pay for their educations while prisoners got them for free. That’s not true. I paid a great price for my education in prison. Life. And I’m still paying.

What they don’t realize is that it’s in society’s best interest that prisoners develop educational and vocational skills, in order to become wage-earning and law-abiding members of society when they’re released. About 90% of those men who return to prison are unemployed at the time of their arrest. Make society safer by educating prisoners. Do everyone a favor.

There’s another aspect of illiteracy, that pertaining to legal and illegal immigrants in prison. I’ve worked with crowds of prisoners in ESL classes (being fluent in foreign languages is a great advantage in prison). Men from virtually every Spanish-speaking country south of us, plus Haitians, are a growing presence in prison. Many are illiterate in their native language, but virtually speechless in English. What has impressed me about these men is their desire to learn.

There are so many sad stories, wrenching accounts of starving families, struggling to come here, work, send money home, literally to save their children. One man, a Cuban, had an American wife and children in Miami. He spoke no English. He was working in another city, got mixed up in something, went to jail, had no way to call or communicate with his family; all his wife knew was that he had disappeared. She didn’t know whether he was alive or dead, had abandoned his four children or not. She’d been living in a rental, couldn’t pay, went home to her family in Kansas City.

Four years later, he was in my ESL class, trying to learn enough English so he could write letters to government agencies to find his family. His inability to speak or write English crippled him, had a terrible effect on his mental state. Fortunately, Luann Meeker, a friend of mine in Kansas City, made a phone call and found his wife and children. He was alive! What a lift. He wasn’t yet able to write a coherent letter in English, but he’d dictate and I’d translate. It was an incredible mail reunion. Later they came to visit him.

Visit his website at

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