Poetry & Protest Contest: Poetry Honorable Mentions

This month, we are participating in the Poetry Coalition's March theme: "I am deliberate / and afraid / of nothing: Poetry & Protest." The line is from from "New Year's Day" by Audre Lorde. The theme was inspired by a number of occasions taking place next year, including the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment granting women the right to vote and the 50th anniversary of the tragic shooting of student protesters at Kent State University. It also speaks to the role poetry has played in encouraging civic and grassroots engagement, and contributed to public debate and dialogue. 

Last fall, volunteer mentors who currently participate in the Poetry Center's workshop, FREE TIME: Building Community for Incarcerated Writers (part of our Art for Justice project), solicited submissions from prisoners across the country to enter into our POETRY & PROTEST contest. By our February deadline, we had received close to 100 poetry and prose submissions from writers on the inside on "the inequities and unsustainability of the American legal system and mass incarceration." Both the poetry and prose winners will be published here on the Poetry Center website over the course of the next several weeks. They will also receive cash prizes.

Today we are thrilled to feature the Poetry Honorable Mentions. 


by Joe Vanderford


In love, but utterly alone

            in that notion

Sick from rejection, never got the vaccine

My rabid heart lashed out and had a fatal bite

Me? Like a psycho-logically wounded animal

My lover, preserved forever in my mind but

in reality – his essence far beyond his grave


            Do you know what society does with passionate,

damaged, women scorned? Locks them away forever.

For 33 years, I have stayed productive, deemed it

emotional solitude, to heal wounds. But like building

a ship in a bottle, what to do when finished?

No ocean, no voice but the echo of my own. Suffocating,

extinguishing my existence, while citizens curiously

glance, watch & pass by. I stand at the soundproof glass

& scream. No longer ignorant, mature enough to feel the

aftershocks of my actions. Humanity bankrupt –

no second spin of the wheel.


Do you know – you pay taxes

to keep me in the bottle, screaming?


Joe Vanderford is a trans poet and artist whose writing has been published in Poetry UnboundYellow Medicine ReviewThe Named and the Nameless, and elsewhere. Joe is currently working toward completion of his AA degree and writes from the Minnesota Correctional Facility in Shakopee, where he is serving a life sentence with the possibility of parole.


by Franklin Kapaia


we say fuck the man!

the man has no color

he’s imprisoned black, white, and all the others

he’s the same hue as you

why isn’t he with you?

question number one

aren’t we all people?

question number two

if we’re all people, labeled as equal, then why aren’t we free?

man, shoot that man!

just for some cane?

can’t you see that it’s the government

they feed off our pain!

they make the drugs

we sell the drugs

we go down to take the blame

if it’s not the drugs they’re shooting us

the ones that stay alive they put in the pen

don’t feel targeted, do something

the change starts within

we need one word


with that we’d be one again

in the streets they treat us like shit

in jail they feed us like shit

no mercy for the incarcerated innocent

dads cry for their kids

i see that every day

the stress, struggle, depression and pain

i know dads that will never see their kids again

i know dads that pray to kiss their kids again

i know dads that commit suicide over the shame

i know you heard that

now tell me that the government is not to blame

giving out ten years for ten grains

we’re judged when we get out

you say “No JOB FOR HIM!”

with no job, that’s children going hungry again

who’s going to put food on their plate?

the government? hell no!

yes, it’s the parent that you locked up for drugs trying to feed their kids

you’re taking away all the men

overpopulated prison cells

do that over and over again

isn’t that insane?

we’re not slaves my people

we have to come together

we have to break the chain


Franklin Kapaia is serving a life sentence in Massachusetts.


by Geneva J. Phillips


time turns differently spilling out

            the sides of dank cells

poison honeycomb guarded with evasion

            the invention of necessity


            redressing automatons

                        burying shame

            beneath humiliation      squatting

                        spreading         eye unfocused

            on the middle distance

                        between human and non


drug dealing, assaults, sexual deviancy, extortion,

medical neglect, domestic violence, attempted murder;

all charged and convicted yet reoccurring

daily in a place of “corrections”


blind eye, cover up, hush-hush, no cell research

media blackout             ban truth          propaganda

parade              build more prisons

            they won’t die fast enough


            save money, cut portions, food cost

                        ration               paper crisis

            no supplies                   assemble

                        smile                applaud


                        vote no change

Geneva J. Phillips grew up in the foothills of the Winding Stair mountains in southeast Oklahoma. A poet for most of her life, Geneva makes one-of-a-kind art and poetry books and participates in Poetic Justice, a volunteer-led writing program for incarcerated writers. She was a finalist in the 2018 Pen America Prison Writing Contest. Geneva’s poetry has been published in AWST PressColumbia Journal, and elsewhere. She currently works in the education department at Eddie Warrior Correctional Center in Tulsa, Oklahoma, where she is serving an 18-year sentence.