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Announcing the Winners of the 2nd Annual Keeley Schenwar Memorial Essay Prize

The prize honors the work of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated writers who are struggling for a more just world.

Truthout is proud to announce the winners of the second annual Keeley Schenwar Memorial Essay Prize. We were astounded by the response this year, and are grateful for each of the many hundreds of essays we received. We regret that we could only select two essays; each piece we read was unique and moving in its own way.

The 2022 winners are Kwaneta Harris, for “Working in Prison Fields Didn’t ‘Correct’ Me, It Revealed the System’s Brutality,” and Colette Payne, for “I Stole to Feed My Family and Was Incarcerated. We Need Resources, Not Prisons.”

The Keeley Schenwar Memorial Essay Prize, awarded to two formerly or currently incarcerated people for essays related to imprisonment or policing, is given in memory of Keeley Schenwar (1990-2020), who was a devoted mother, daughter, sister, friend, writer and advocate for incarcerated mothers. Each year, the selected essays share some of the spirit in which Keeley Schenwar moved in the world (and wrote her own work), a spirit of empathy, vulnerability and resistance. Each winner receives $3,000 and publication in Truthout.

Kwaneta Harris’s essay, “Working in Prison Fields Didn’t ‘Correct’ Me, It Revealed the System’s Brutality,” zooms in on the experience of working in the fields — picking okra and potatoes under the hot sun and the racist, abusive tyranny of guards on horseback — and connects it with the everyday violence that pervades prison life. While Harris depicts the legacy of slavery in present-day incarceration, she reveals how it’s interlaced with state-sanctioned gender-based violence. Through a detailed narrative, she shows that prison is “a system that encompasses the entire range of violence.”

Colette Payne’s essay, “I Stole to Feed My Family and Was Incarcerated. We Need Resources, Not Prisons,” exposes the cycle of poverty that fuels imprisonment. With precision and heart, Payne chronicles her childhood, which was filled with love but also included hunger and homelessness. She shares how at 14, she shoplifted to support her family — and how this was a courageous act of love, which was punished by imprisonment, followed by addiction, followed by more imprisonment. Payne now works to “dismantle punitive systems … encouraging all Black and Brown girls to share their truths and proclaim: Poverty no more.”

Congratulations, Kwaneta and Colette!

We extend our deepest thanks to all who entered this contest. Your stories are powerful and we are honored that you gave us a chance to read them all.

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