Crafting a Writer’s Life in Prison

Edited by Caits Meissner

Haymarket Books (January 2022)

Trade paper • ISBN-13: 9781642595802 • US $16.95 • 5.25 in x 7.5 in • 150 pgs.

READ: Why Write About Life in Prison?


he Sentences That Create Us draws from  the unique insights of over fifty justice-involved contributors and their allies to offer inspiration and resources for creating a literary life in prison. Centering in the philosophy that writers in prison can be as vibrant and capable as writers on the outside, and have much to offer readers everywhere,  The Sentences That Create Us aims to propel writers in prison to launch their work into the world beyond the walls, while also embracing and supporting the creative community within the walls.

The Sentences That Create Us is a comprehensive resource writers can grow with, beginning with the foundations of creative writing. A roster of impressive contributors including Reginald Dwayne Betts (Felon: Poems), Mitchell S. Jackson (Survival Math), Wilbert Rideau (In the Place of Justice) and Piper Kerman (Orange is the New Black), among many others, address working within and around the severe institutional, emotional, psychological and physical limitations of writing prison through compelling first-person narratives. The book’s authors offer pragmatic advice on editing techniques, pathways to publication, writing routines, launching incarcerated-run prison publications and writing groups, lesson plans from prison educators and next-step resources.

Threaded throughout the book is the running theme of addressing lived trauma in writing, and writing’s capacity to support an authentic healing journey centered in accountability and restoration. While written towards people in the justice system, this book can serve anyone seeking hard won lessons and inspiration for their own creative—and human—journey. 


“Offering pragmatic advice and helpful writing exercises, The Sentences That Create Us is not only an urgent handbook for incarcerated writers and their allies, but a craft book that will instruct and challenge any writer.”

Poets & Writers

“This is one of the best books on writing that I’ve ever read. I couldn’t put it down. There are millions of stories locked behind bars, along with the millions of people our nation has caged. This astonishing book has the power to set those stories free. And I believe the truths contained in those stories just might free us all.”

Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow

“When I was inside, I had no access to this manual. It didn’t exist. And so, I scraped along the best way I could. I talked to friends who plotted out novels by riffing on rap albums. I talked to friends who’d written hundreds of pages, by hand, fantasy novels that only they and I and those walking the yard would read. And we were all writers. But had we had this book—we would have been better writers.”

Reginald Dwayne Betts, from the foreword

The Sentences That Create Us feels like a cosmic reminder that the most radical, life-giving art is created and received from the inside to the inside(s). This book, unlike any other I’ve read, takes seriously the beating hearts and curious minds behind the bars of a nation obsessed with punishing the most vulnerable.”

Kiese Laymon, author of Heavy

“A book rich with craft and the vitality of necessity. An essential collection and a gift to the world.”

Nana Kwame Adjei-Brenyah, author of Friday Black

The Sentences That Create Us offers an illuminating array of tutorials and testimonials, reckonings and brass tacks. But above all, this volume is an homage to the power of writing to deliver each of us from our individual confines into the soaring infinity of our imaginations.”

Jennifer Egan, author of A Visit from the Goon Squad

“Not only a powerful guidebook for all who are curious about developing a writing practice, this radical collection also demonstrates how people surviving and resisting the prison industrial complex reimagine and rebuild our world. With entries including narratives of writing lives and communities behind bars, definitions of key concepts and terms, and samples and examples across genres (from poetry to journalism and more), this fierce resource equips readers with all the tools to write ourselves into freedom.”

Erica R. Meiners, co-author of Abolition. Feminism. Now.

“Having taught college-level English courses in prison for more than a decade, I am thrilled for a volume like this one: chock full of prose that is not only beautiful, inspirational and wise, but hugely helpful in a pedagogical sense—a perfect addition to all syllabi that involve writing in the carceral space.”

Baz Dreisinger, author of Incarceration Nations

The Sentences That Create Us, PEN America’s new handbook, is both metaphor for the system and means of reinterpreting it. These writers—made on the inside—reveal the many ways that denial of a creative intellectual life on the outside is one of the pillars of our current carceral dependency. Shooting stars on every page, this book is instructional beyond its promise. Through it, we may just learn that we have always had better solutions than bars and walls.”
—Gina Dent, co-author of Abolition. Feminism. Now.

The Sentences That Create Us is a wonderful immersive guide into the world of writing (and reading) that will explain, reinterpret and transform genres you thought you knew. It is a profound reminder that writing, when nurtured by those denied, has redemptive power not only to examine and interpret our lives, but also to change them.”

Donna Murch, author of Assata Taught Me

“Take advantage of every word, Caits Meissner tells readers of this powerful anthology. Its authors certainly have. The Sentences That Create Us is a practical tool of the ways currently and formerly incarcerated people and their allies, gifted writers all, seize the written word to do what prison refuses: celebrate the human. Here is a moving, hands-on guide to freedom writing.”

Dan Berger, author of Captive Nation


Founded in 1922, PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect free expression in the United States and worldwide. PEN America is the largest of the more than 100 centers worldwide that comprise the PEN International network. Our membership forms a nationwide community of writers and literary professionals, as well as devoted readers and supporters who join with them to carry out PEN America’s mission. PEN America advocates for writers under threat worldwide and public policies that bolster freedom of speech; celebrates the literature of eminent and emerging writers through awards, publications, festivals, and public programming; produces original research on pressing threats to free expression; and offers platforms to lift up the work and views of those whose voices have too often gone unheard or been ignored. PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Program, founded in 1971 in the wake of the Attica riots, advances the transformative possibilities of writing, and has offered many thousands of incarcerated writers free access to literary resources, skilled writing mentors, and audiences for their work. Our program extends PEN America’s mission of supporting free expression, and encourages the use of the written word as a legitimate form of power.

Caits Meissner is the Director of Prison and Justice Writing at PEN America. She is also the author and illustrator of hybrid poetry book Let It Die Hungry (The Operating System, 2016). A multidisciplinary creator, Meissner’s written and visual work has been published in venues including The Guardian, Harper’s Bazaar, Medium’s Human Parts, The Literary Review, Narrative, Adroit, Drunken Boat, Literary Hub, The Rumpus, [Pank], The Journal and The Offing, among others.


Please contact subagents for the following languages and territories:

Language/Territory Subagent
China, Taiwan, Indonesia, Malaysia, and VietnamBig Apple Agency
DutchSebes & Bisseling Literary Agency
English outside North AmericaDavid Grossman Literary Agency
FrenchDeborah Druba Agency
GermanPaul & Peter Fritz AG Literatur Agentur
GreekRead n' Right Agency
HebrewThe Deborah Harris Agency
ItalianBerla & Griffini Rights Agency
JapaneseThe English Agency (Japan) Ltd
KoreanBC Agency, or Korea Copyright Center
PortugueseRIFF Agency
Russia/Baltics/Eastern EuropePrava I Prevodi
Scandinavia Sebes & Bisseling Literary Agency
Spanish in Latin AmericaInternational Editors' Co., S.A.
Spanish in SpainInternational Editors' Co., S.A.
TurkishAnatolialit Agency

For all other languages/territories, please contact Roam Agency.