Chatham News

Allegheny County Jail inmate in Chatham’s Words Without Walls program captures PEN Prison Writing Award

By: Amanda Leff Ritchie, Senior Public Relations Specialist
June 6, 2011

PITTSBURGH (June 6, 2011) … An inmate who participated in Words Without Walls, a creative writing course led by Chatham University students at the Allegheny County Jail (ACJ), recently received second place in the fiction category of the prestigious PEN American Center’s Prison Writing Contest.

Lynne Schaffer-Agnew received the award in recognition of her short story “Sabrina,” which is about a cellmate’s sudden death from heroin withdrawal.

Ms. Schaffer-Agnew wrote the piece during the eight-week creative writing course led by students in Chatham’s MFA in Creative Writing program. In addition to being a real-world teaching opportunity for Chatham students, Words Without Walls provides an artistic pursuit for the inmates and a vehicle for examining their lives and reimagining their futures. A reading follows each session, with the best work selected for inclusion in a “chapbook” published each spring by Chatham’s independent literary publishing class.

According to the PEN American Center’s website, “the PEN Prison Writing Program believes in the restorative and rehabilitative power of writing, by providing hundreds of inmates across the country with skilled writing teachers and audiences for their work. The program seeks to provide a place for inmates to express themselves freely with paper and pen and to encourage the use of the written word as a legitimate form of power. The program sponsors an annual writing contest, publishes a free handbook for prisoners, provides one-on-one mentoring to inmates whose writing shows merit or promise, conducts workshops for former inmates, and seeks to get inmates’ work to the public through literary publications and readings.”

Anyone incarcerated in a federal, state, or county prison in the year before the Sept. 1 deadline is eligible to enter the PEN American Center’s annual writing contest for prisoners. Prizes of $200, $100, and $50 are awarded for first, second, and third place, respectively, in the following categories: poetry, fiction, drama and nonfiction.

Ms. Schaffer-Agnew also received the Sandra Gould Ford Prize for Creative Writing for “Sabrina”; Chatham awards the prize annually to a writer in the “Words Without Walls” program. The Prize, underwritten by The Pittsburgh Foundation, is named for Sandra Gould Ford, Homewood resident and former artist-in-residence at the ACJ who created the Words Without Walls program.

About PEN American Center

PEN American Center is the U.S. branch of the world’s oldest international literary and human rights organization. International PEN was founded in 1921 in direct response to the ethnic and national divisions that contributed to the First World War. PEN American Center was founded in 1922 and is the largest of the 144 PEN centers in 101 countries that together compose International PEN.

Throughout its 85-year history, PEN American Center has remained a writer-centered organization in which members play a leading role. PEN presidents, such as Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer, Susan Sontag, and Salman Rushdie have, and continue to place themselves at the forefront of the struggle to oppose censorship and defend writers.

About Chatham University

Chatham University prepares students from around the world to help develop solutions to some of the world’s biggest challenges. Consistently ranked among the top master’s level institutions in the Northeast by U.S. News & World Report and The Princeton Review, Chatham University is also ranked in the top five percent of graduate-intensive institutions nationally and experienced the fastest-growing enrollment in the Pittsburgh region over the past decade. Founded in 1869, Chatham University includes the Shadyside Campus, with the historic 39-acre Woodland Road arboretum and Chatham Eastside facility; and the 388-acre Eden Hall Campus north of Pittsburgh. For more information call 800-837-1290 or visit