Vera Institute of Justice and PEN America Release Eight Powerful First-Person Narratives from Incarcerated People for “The Human Toll of Jail” Project

(NEW YORK) – Today the Vera Institute of Justice, in partnership with PEN America, released “The Human Toll of Jail,” a set of first-person narratives from incarcerated people that aims to humanize their experiences and convey the harmful impacts of incarceration on themselves, their loved ones, and whole communities.   

Vera partnered with PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing program to invite submissions to a writing competition from people who are currently incarcerated with the goal of presenting an honest and up-close view of life in U.S. jails. From dozens of submissions, Vera and PEN America selected eight winners, whose stories cover topics from the negative effects of solitary confinement and the mistreatment of people experiencing mental health crises, to the horrific conditions in overcrowded jails and the daily violence many incarcerated people endure, leading to serious injuries and even death.  

Below are excerpts from some of these stories: 

“I couldn't tell my side of the story. The officers knew I couldn't speak English, and they didn't care either.”  

–From “A North Korean Refugee’s Kentucky Jail Stay” by Derek R. Trumbo Sr., dramatist and winner of multiple PEN Prison Writing Awards 

“Between the light and noise, as well as my internal mental racket while facing a potential death sentence, I didn’t know how to cope with the sense of despair that was my constant companion.” 

–From “Simple Math” by Lyle C. May, prison journalist, abolitionist, and co-author of Crimson Letters: Voices from Death Row

“They must really think we are animals, I thought, slumping onto a bench with a groan. ‘I can’t believe,’ I said to no one in particular, ‘they’ve been processing me for three days.’” 

–From “From Frying Pan to Fire” by Benjamin Frandsen, award-winning author and the host of the Ben Free Podcast

“In practice, Deaf people who were held in county jails across the state report that there were no interpreters, no accommodating phone access, and often no hearing aids.” 

–From “The Silent Treatment” by Rahsaan Thomas, co-host and co-producer of the Pulitzer Prize–nominated and Dupont Award–winning podcast Ear Hustle   

Every year, 10 million people cycle in and out of U.S. jails. The lives and experiences of these people are often overlooked and ignored in the name of delivering “justice,” but time and again research has shown that incarceration only leads to greater trauma, disruption, and harm. This project aims to shine a light on the deep devastation caused by the U.S. carceral system to individual people, their families, and their communities.  

“Beyond enriching the lives of incarcerated people themselves and helping to nurture literary talent among the prison population, we at PEN America believe in the transformative possibilities of prison writing to raise public consciousness about the societal implications and harms of mass incarceration,” Caits Meissner, director of Prison and Justice Writing at PEN America said. “The powerful stories from these eight writers are a testament to the idea that a thriving writing life behind bars is indeed possible and, once shared with the world beyond, can support change for individuals and the ways society views our entire system of incarceration.” 

“Incarceration causes immeasurable harm, not only to the people who are directly impacted by it but also to their families and communities,” said Nicholas Turner, president and director of the Vera Institute of Justice. “The abuse and cruelty suffered daily in jails across the United States is laid bare through deeply personal narratives. The profound stories featured in this project bring this to light by exposing the deep trauma jail incarceration creates.”


About the Vera Institute of Justice

The Vera Institute of Justice is powered by hundreds of advocates, researchers, and policy experts working to transform the criminal legal and immigration systems until they’re fair for all. Founded in 1961 to advocate for alternatives to money bail in New York City, Vera is now a national organization that partners with impacted communities and government leaders for change. We develop just, antiracist solutions so that money doesn’t determine freedom; fewer people are in jails, prisons, and immigration detention; and everyone is treated with dignity. Vera’s headquarters is in Brooklyn, New York, with offices in Washington, DC, New Orleans, and Los Angeles. For more information, visit

About PEN America’s Prison and Justice Writing Program

For more than five decades, the PEN Prison and Justice Writing program has worked to amplify and liberate the voices of thousands of incarcerated writers through the written word. By providing resources and mentorship opportunities, we help these writers integrate into the broader literary community, both within and outside of the prison walls. For over 30 years, we have also hosted the annual PEN Prison and Justice Writing Contest, in which incarcerated writers are encouraged to submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works. This past year, we published The Sentences that Create Us: Crafting a Writer’s Life in Prison which we are distributing for free to incarcerated writers thanks to the generous support of the Mellon Foundation. The book has been sent out to over 37,000 incarcerated people.

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