PEN America names winners of prison writing program award

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NEW YORK (AP) — PEN America has announced the winners of a new award, supported by a grant from the estate of the late Madeleine L’Engle, for participants in the literary and human rights organization’s Prison Writing Mentorship Program.

The honor is called the PEN America/L’Engle-Rahman Prize for Mentorship, named for the author of the classic “A Wrinkle In Time” and for the late educator and Black Panther leader Ahmad Rahman, whom L’Engle befriended while he was in prison. PEN announced Wednesday that the prize was given to four mentor/mentee teams: Benjamin Frandsen and Noelia Cerna, Elizabeth Hawes and Jeffrey James Keyes, Derek Trumbo and Agustin Lopez, and Seth Wittner and Katrina Moore.

The eight winners each receive $250 and a set of books chosen by their respective mentor/mentee.

“This award honors that spirit and the spirit of my grandmother,” L’Engle’s granddaughter Charlotte Jones Voiklis said in a statement. “Our grandmother called her writing room the ivory tower and while it was, on the one hand, a sardonic recognition of the privilege she had, it also signaled the isolation writing imposes, and she understood profoundly the isolation of incarcerated writers like Ahmad, and how mentorship provides them a linkage to the broader literary community.”

The PEN prison writing program, of which L’Engle was an early supporter, includes more than 300 mentors working with imprisoned writers. L’Engle and Rahman exchanged letters for years, reflecting on everything from religion to their personal lives and suggesting books and articles to each other.

Rahman, who died in 2015, served more than 20 years in prison for what was widely regarded as a wrongful felony murder conviction. His life sentence was commuted by then-Michigan Governor John Engler in 1992, and he later taught at the University of Michigan-Dearborn. L’Engle died in 2007.

“L’Engle was as much a recipient of Rahman’s offerings as he was hers — they were both mentors,” Caits Meissner, director of PEN America’s prison and justice writing program, said in a statement. “These four mentor/mentee pairs (or perhaps better stated in some ways as mentor/mentor pairs) showcase the best of what it means to treat those on the inside as equally human, equally meaningful, equally as capable of stirring our imaginations through the written word.”

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