Poetry & Protest Contest: Poetry Winners

Back in March, we began 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. Much has changed in the world since then, and we are happy to finally be able to present the rest of the winners of our contest for incarcerated writers.

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 have been published here on the Poetry Center website. They will also receive cash prizes.

Click here to read the Poetry Honorable mentions. 

Click here to read the Prose Honorable mentions. 

Click here to read the Prose Winners. 

Today we are thrilled to feature the Poetry Winners.


by Sean J. White


how did I wind up  [ay] here     wind up [ay] informal end up in

a particular state situation or place     SYNONYM breath informal

puff     breathe     all alone     a high picture window

with the view of another window frosted revealing only day and night

it doesn't matter what wind [ih] carried me I already indeed

the responsibility     tightly wound [ow] seeking time in a world

without clocks     pace the floor to pass the time                                                      

how many names can we devise for the wind [ih]     nomina agentis                      

winders [ay] despooling hours and minutes moments heaped in silos

winding [ay] razor wire     malignant polyps infecting Interstates

diseased homonyms     words spelled differently but sound the

same (but what are words spelled the same but sound differently)

the wending walk of shame I walk unrepentant     the aggressive

interrogation of a clown tickles my ears     the painted  smile

you can't expect me to take seriously     my own smile and a belly

full of wind [ih] I wrestle laughter handcuffed carried by the blue agents of Zephyr          

a walk to a metaphorical needle full of strange chemicals shot to stop the body               

fear worse than the prick     silent bricks and tiles jail within a jail 

here I lacked [past completed] the humanity of watching shadows

seventh floor swallow across the street buildings     pace the floor

to pass the time     to count the hours and minutes wound up (ow)    

that hurts     what  a wound [oo]     the illusion of

control a light switch my finger's whim   on and off the other

side of the sliding cell door thick steel overpowered the winds (ih] of mercy

better than benighted Alcatraz cell  sight removed popping buttons

to play hide and seek     the wounds [oo] darkness strikes our toes

binding feet in fear and ratty deck shoes all the buttons stripped from my soul

replaced with an   o range jumpsuit blazing anger     to wind [ih] is to make

someone unable to breathe easily for weeks at a time     once upon a time

punishment stripped of my clothes my humanity lay crumpled on the floor

outside the cell and I became [past] the animal     and in the quiet

under the camera I thought [past] about a woman I had known

and shot my load against the wall and lying again on a deli-thin mattress

I think about thinking about that woman     the ease with which I found myself

in the hole     the sounds of isolation     the wind [ih] of a vent     and later

what is the sound of one man screaming three cells down if no one cares

pace the floor to pass the time     delineating the graphic detail of sensory deprivation

step by step     the hours and minutes unwinding [ay] thread    by thread

sailing close to (or near) the wind [ih] informal come close to being

indecent dishonest or disastrous     bare feet blackened from miles

met five steps at a time     I wend alone     winding [ay] twisting turning

bending looping curving     a zigzag meander verbalizing a nominal

tigering my enclosure the invisible uncountable degrees of an arc

poke and prod the threads of my sanity and the winded [ih] growl of my eyes

disembowels every uncommon passerby agent of Zephyr     pace the floor

to pass the time     little window and locked glory hole brush-bottomed doors

to slow the casting of lines     night fishers of strange waters their voices sail

cell to cell cargoes of trauma carried to other victims     an exchange of winds [ih]

that will continue long after my departure     a continuous reenactment

of the Twilight Zone episode with the toys trapped in a bucket    

and the molting seabird days plume routine three times a week

showers and exchanges of clothes     sleep and sleep

breakfast     lunch and dinner     now and again

piss pings the streaky stainless steel          

waves roll on the wind [ih]  

pace the floor to pass the time


Sean J. White was awarded second place in PEN America’s 2018 Prison Writing Contest.  His short fiction and poetry have appeared in numerous journals, such as Xanadu, Natural Bridge, and Connecticut River Review. He enjoys the discipline of writing daily haiku and haibun. Sean is serving a life sentence in Wisconsin.


by Joseph Cala


And— And— And—
And I’ve been good this year!
And I’ve taken all your programs…

And yet you gave me a (three-year!) set-off.
And— And— And— And so no parole again.

And— And— And—
And I’ve got a wife and kids!
And they need me to support them.
And I need to help raise the children.
And— And— And— And I love them.

And then it’s, “Talk to the ‘and.’”
And so no parole again.

And— And— And—
And my father died last year.
And my mother’s sick and old.
And my mother needs me now.
And— And— And— And she may die soon.

“And? Your point is?”
And so no parole again.

And— And— And—
And then my mother died.
And then my wife divorced me.
And then my kids disowned me.
And— And— And— And now there’s no one left but me.

“Oh well. I guess there’s no one who will miss you then.”
And so no parole again.

And— And— And—
And I’ve done 85% of my sentence!
And I was supposed to parole at 50%!
And I’m sixty-five years old now!
Can’t you see I’m rehabilitated?

And— And— And—
And what is wrong with you?
Just give me a chance!
Have you no compassion? No mercy? No soul?
Don’t have half a conscience?

“You don’t. Not with that kind of language. Ands only.”
And so no parole again.

And— And— And—
And so no second chances.
And so my life is over.
And I had so many plans.
And I didn’t get to raise my kids!

And— And— And—
And I wanted to make the world a better place.
And I wanted to be happy and free.
And— And— And— And they don’t want me to be free.
And there’s nothing I can do about it. Nothing!

And— And— And—
And they’re still intent on judging me.
And they will never forgive me.
And they think they need to punish me.
And why? Why the maximum penalty?

And— And— And—
And I think I’m going crazy,
because the guilt is killing me!
And I hate myself – I hate myself!
And I wish that I was dead!

And— And— And—
And you promised! You promised!
The statutes say I can make parole now!
And I did what you wanted! Just tell me what you want!
What the hell does it take to make parole?!

And— And— And—
And I’m sorry, I’m so sorry.
And I really regret what I’ve done.
And I swear that I’ll be good.
And— And— And— And I promise I’ll never do it again.

“Well, of course not, silly. We’ll make sure of that.”
And so no parole again.

And— And— And—
And so what is the meaning to life
when you no longer have one?
No family And no friends,
no money And no privacy,
no possessions And no goals,
no potential or accomplishments,
no rights And no freedom,
no smiles And no laughter,
no good times And no dreams,
no tomorrow And no hope.
No way out –
(And— And— And—)
– and no end.

And— And— And—
And someone please help me, please try to understand:
I’m a pretty good person.
I love dogs And cats And butterflies.
Doesn’t that count for something?

Because I can’t stand all these “Ands” anymore!
Again And again And again! And! And! And!

And infinitum!
And nauseum!

And then it’s all right,
because I’m not like you.
You keep going your way –
and I’ll keep going mine.
Keep tacking on those Ands –
keep stacking on those years.

And I will still forgive you.
And I will still love you.

And— And— And—
And forever.


Joseph Cala writes fiction and poetry, describes himself as a “happy person,” and does yoga and meditation to stay positive. He has written a detective story called “Eureka,” a 45-page, sci-fi novelette titled “Sinergy,” and two children’s stories: “The Santa from the Planet Atlantis” and “Down Deep, A Pirate Story”. Joseph is serving a 30-year sentence in Texas.

untitled (1ST PLACE WINNER)

by Adam Zachs


I asked the state for clemency

They offered me a vegetarian diet instead.

Very fancy indeed, no blood no guts

No mechanical deboning of any sort.

Just like a Beverly Hills restaurant

without the avocado toast.

The official menu says we shall receive

peanut butter, 4 ounces each

and every day. I only get 3 ounces and a

plastic spoon.


By the year 2199 they will have shortchanged me

65,156 ounces of peanut butter

but the joke is on them.

My sentence ends in 2198 and then

I will be able to stop wondering

“Hey, where the heck is the jelly?”

and “where the hell is the bread?”


Adam Zachs is serving a 60-year sentence in Connecticut.