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Announcing the Winners of the 3rd Annual Keeley Schenwar Memorial Essay Prize

The prize honors the work of incarcerated and formerly incarcerated authors who are writing toward a more just world.

The Truthout Center for Grassroots Journalism is proud to announce the winners of the third annual Keeley Schenwar Memorial Essay Prize. We were inexpressibly moved by each of the hundreds of essays we read, and wish we could have selected more than two; we hope to uplift more of these pieces in other ways throughout the year.

In addition to members of the Truthout team, we are grateful to our additional guest judge Colette Payne, one of last year’s winners of the prize.

The 2023 winners are Tracy McCarter, author of “As a Black Woman Accused of Killing a White Man, I Was Never Innocent Until Proven Guilty,” and Elizabeth Hawes, author of “As Incarcerated Women, We’re Subjected to State Rape.”

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.

Tracy McCarter’s essay, “As a Black Woman Accused of Killing a White Man, I Was Never Innocent Until Proven Guilty,” searingly chronicles the author’s experience of being criminalized as a survivor of gender-based violence — and how the consequences of criminalization extended beyond the brutal conditions of imprisonment. McCarter, a nurse, was denied the ability to contribute her life-saving skills during the height of the COVID pandemic. Released on bail, she faced heavy barriers to employment and education. McCarter condemns a system that marked her “guilty from the start.” She urges us to ask, “If we left behind the oppressive systems that deprive people of health care, housing, employment, safety, and their very freedom, what could we create instead?”

Elizabeth Hawes’s essay, “As Incarcerated Women, We’re Subjected to State Rape,” confronts the fact that strip searches — a procedure that incarcerated people are subjected to on a routine basis — are a form of sexual violence. The author shares her own story and those of others she interviewed, including a woman who was stripped multiple times while attempting to access treatment for a pelvic infection. As Hawes notes, most incarcerated women experienced sexual violence prior to prison — and once inside, they are re-traumatized again and again by this state-sanctioned practice. This powerful essay forces us to recognize that, as Hawes states, “Rape is about power and control. Subjugation. Prison is too.”

We extend our deep gratitude to Tracy and Elizabeth for exposing these horrendous injustices, and our congratulations to them for being selected as the 2023 prizewinners. To all who submitted essays: We are thankful, honored and humbled to have read your powerful work.

If you are moved to support this program, you can donate toward the Keeley Schenwar Memorial Essay Prize here. Please send a note to afterward letting us know the contribution is for the prize.

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