Free Time: Building Community for Incarcerated Writers

Ada McCartney
2 min readNov 14, 2021



UA Poetry Center Program Asked Creative Writers Who are Incarcerated: How Do You Manifest Resilience Inside Prison?

First Quarter Moon Moment. Photo by Ada McCartney

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TUCSON, ARIZONA — November 15, 2021 — What does it take for people in prison to survive incarceration and hope for the future? How do they build community, maintain their dignity, or plan for life inside or after incarceration? How do incarcerated people celebrate themselves?

Those were the questions posed to writers locked up in prisons across the country for the University of Arizona Poetry Center’s 2021 Poetry & Prose Writing Challenge for Incarcerated Writers. The Challenge, which includes cash awards for finalists, is organized and facilitated by a dedicated group of community volunteers who participate in the Poetry Center workshop, Free Time: Building Community for Incarcerated Writers.

A curated selection of pieces that were judged by best-selling and award-winning authors Piper Kerman (Orange Is the New Black), Randall Horton ({#289–128}), and Curtis Dawkins (The Graybar Hotel) will be read in-person at the Poetry Center, 1508 E. Helen St., Tucson, on Saturday, November 20, at 12:30 p.m. Winners of the Challenge, which is supported by assistance from the Art for Justice Fund and conducted in collaboration with PEN America, will also be published on the Poetry Center blog.

“This is a project that honors the humanity of all people and amplifies incarcerated voices to the world that exists beyond prison walls and fences,” said Joe Watson, founder of the Free Time workshop and a formerly incarcerated advocate for criminal justice reform. “As trying as the last 18 months have been for people in the ‘free world,’ incarcerated writers manifest that sort of resilience every day.”

This is the Challenge’s second consecutive year of soliciting submissions. In 2020, the theme of “protest” received about a third the number of entries received this year from writers in prisons nationwide. Winners were published online in 2020, but the pandemic forced the Poetry Center to cancel the in-person reading. This year, the Challenge received nearly 200 submissions in poetry, short fiction, and nonfiction writing. Both people who are formerly incarcerated and Free Time volunteers will read the top entries.

The reading event is free to the public. Attendees will be required to wear masks. ###

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Ada McCartney

Poet | Cat Lover | Kalamazoo College and Naropa University Alum | Long Live the USPS