Writing Prompts

What stories would you write as a correspondent from inside prison? Below are suggestions for topics. We will prioritize the publication of timely dispatches, articles and reported essays.

If a story is time-sensitive, please label it “TIME-SENSITIVE” in ALL CAPS at the top. 

PJP Topics

Here are some topics to start. If you choose any of the topics below, please include the label “ATTN: PJP TOPIC” in ALL CAPS above the headline and mention the topic name. Tip: You do not need to answer all the questions. Focus your piece on one or two of them

PANDEMIC: How have fears about the Delta variant changed the situation? Is your prison experiencing another COVID-19 outbreak? Has Delta changed the willingness to get the vaccine? Is prison life returning to normal or are pandemic measures coming back? How have educational, therapeutic or religious programming changed in the pandemic? How is it returning to normal? How is the pandemic affecting your family or your relationship with your loved one? If you have lost someone, write a eulogy. What is your suggestion for how prisons should manage the next pandemic based on your experience? 

PRISON JOBS: Tell us about your job, the pros and cons including how much you are paid. What are the best jobs? What are the worst jobs? What are the highest-paying and lowest-paying jobs in your institution? Tell us about a unique job that would surprise people outside. What is the difference in lifestyle between someone who makes 17 cents an hour and someone who makes $1 an hour? Are there socio-economic classes in prison? Beyond jobs, tell us about how you make money and how you spend it. By connecting the reports by various writers, we hope to see a picture of whether there are differences between regions, institutions, men/women’s prisons, federal/state prisons etc. 

NATURAL DISASTERS: Natural disasters — hurricanes, blizzards, wildfires, earthquakes — are intense experiences for humans everywhere. But that intensity can be multiplied many times over for incarcerated people. Over the years, we’ve heard stories about prisoners sitting for days up to their chests in water after Hurricane Katrina; about guards fleeing during lockdowns after earthquakes; about heat failures during blizzards. With climate change heating up the world, these events are happening more and more often. Have you experienced a natural disaster in prison? Tell us about your memories of an earthquake, blizzard, wildfire, hurricane, tornado etc. Write about how prisons can do better. 

WOMEN IN PRISON: The United States incarcerates roughly 25% of the world’s population, and 1.2 million of them are women. Tell us about the challenges of being imprisoned in a system designed for men. How are you getting access to proper medical care, including ob/gyn services, breast exams and birth control. Are you able to get access to ethinc hair supplies, makeup, and skincare? Do you have access to educational opportunities and programs? Tell us about your prison family. Who is advocating for you? 

BOOK/TV SHOW/MOVIE REVIEWS: Review any book, TV show or movie that depicts prison life. Tell us why you liked or didn’t like a book, show or movie. Be specific. How did it get the prison experience wrong? If they got it right, how was it different than most others you see? 

PRISON RECIPES: Much of prison life revolves around ways to avoid eating prison food. Send a recipe for meals, snacks and desserts that you make inside prison and tell us a story about them. This might be about how you came to create this recipe or memories of the dish outside that you were trying to replicate. Or it could be about an occasion that you had this dish. If you are an artist, include an illustration of the dish or a scene showing an occasion where it was served.

COMMUNITY VOICES: We are showcasing the various voices inside your community — Black, Asian, White, indigenous, LGBTQ+, female, military vets, Muslim, Jewish, Buddhist, Death Row, LWOP, former gang member, etc. What do you want readers to know about what it’s like to be in that community inside prison? Share an aspect of that community, including how you celebrate your religion, keep faith or how you try to support each other. Tell us about a change that you’d like to see happen in the way the criminal justice system treats your community. 

Q&A: Write a question-and-answer-style interview story with someone you want to highlight because of a leadership role they play, because they have had an experience you want to draw attention to or because they are representative of a larger group. Interview the person first, and then provide a 4-6 paragraph introduction of the person with an explanation of why you are writing about this person. Follow with a list of no more than 10 questions and condensed answers. Even though you are writing this, this should be an in-person interview, not a written questionnaire. 

WORD ON THE STREET: Pick something in the news that people inside might have a unique perspective on (e.g. Derek Chauvin’s conviction or a new criminal justice policy, political candidate, or law that is being considered in the U.S. or in your state). Interview 5-10 people around you, and write an article about their reactions and thoughts. Include the majority and minority points of view and direct quotes. If the interview subject does not want to provide their name, include a description of them (e.g. your cellie in his 18th year of prison). Include race if it’s relevant.

HOLIDAYS AND AWARENESS MONTHS: Shed light on a particular aspect of prison life or conditions timed with Black History Month (Feb), Women’s History Month (March), Mental Health Awareness Month (May), LGBT Pride Month (June) or another awareness month or holiday. There are many end-of-the-year holidays coming up — Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, New Year’s, etc. — write about how you celebrate inside or what it’s like to be away from your family during this time. Share a favorite memory from before prison. 

PJP SPECIAL PROJECT: WHAT IS IT LIKE TO BE YOU? One of our goals is to de-stigmatize the incarceration experience by creating a space to introduce people untouched by incarceration to perspectives and stories from behind walls. We want everyone to see you and connect with you as fellow humans. However, we also know that it’s difficult to be open about your past, present and future if you have to put your name on it. 

In this project, we invite you to take a piece of blank paper and anonymously answer the question, “WHAT IS IT LIKE TO BE YOU?” You can answer the question however you want as long as it’s true. It can be a journal entry, letter, poem, song, art — however you express yourself. If you want to put your name and location on it, you can. We hope you’ll also invite others around you to submit something, and we wouldn’t mind if you are able to collect a few and send them to us on their behalf. We are treating this project as art — please send it to PJP Special Projects, 3501 Southport Ave., #204, Chicago, IL 60657. 

Other Prompts

Topics of particular interest are bolded.

Prompts About Race and Black Lives Matter

  • How have your thoughts on race been changed by incarceration and the prison environment? Has incarceration made you more conscious of race? Do you feel more racial pride now than you did before you were incarcerated? 
  • Tell a story about your experience with race relations inside the prison system. Explain its significance.
  • Are you comfortable with your racial designation inside prison? If you are mixed-race, explain how that might complicate your place inside prison. 
  • How did you become aware of the color of your skin and how the world viewed you?

Prompts About Prison Conditions

  • What aspect of prison that you want readers to know about. (Please be detailed and be specific about how you know each fact). 
  • Tell us about a policy you’d like to see changed. Include your reasons as well as what opponents would say, and your response to them.
  • Take the reader on a tour of your cell, yard, library or another place in prison. 
  • Write about your first day or your first year in prison. 
  • What solitary confinement is like. If you are on Death Row, what is it like to live side by side with death? 

Prompts About Life Before Prison

  • Write about your upbringing and circumstances that might have eventually led you to prison. 
  • Does your earlier life shed light on the foster-to-prison pipeline or the cycle of incarceration and poverty that has particularly impacted communities of color? Tell us. 
  • If you had problems in school, write about your experience, and anything that might have made a difference. 
  • Did you have a parent or a relative who had been incarcerated? Write about what kind of impact that had.

Prompts About Sustaining Relationships Behind Bars

  • Describe the biggest challenges you have faced as an incarcerated parent or the child of an incarcerated parent. 
  • What have you learned about being a parent once you became incarcerated? 
  • What are the challenges of a romantic relationship across both sides of the wall? How do you nurture your relationship?
  • Tell us about your mentor inside prison or someone you mentor. 

Prompts About Identity, Growth, Spirituality and Inner Life

  • What advice would you give a young teenager incarcerated for the first time? Incorporate your own experience. 
  • Write about LGBTQ+ issues and relationships inside the walls. How has being immersed in a single-sex population altered or solidified your identity?
  • What is it like to age in prison? What are your challenges and fears?
  • Write about developing a new skill or learning a new subject while incarcerated.
  • How do you celebrate your culture? How do you observe religious holidays? 

Prison Life, Society and Culture

  • What advice would you give to a new prisoner who had never been incarcerated before? 
  • Write a “how-to” article on how to navigate an aspect of prison life (e.g. how to keep your cell clean, how to get along with your cellie).
  • Write about an event (spiritual, cultural, sports etc) inside your prison. Include who, what, when, where, why. 
  • How do you stay in shape inside prison? Tell us about your workouts or a sport you play if offered. 
  • Write about an activity, program, educational class or certification that has had an impact on you. 
  • Write about your prison pet or a hobby.
  • Write about your most prized possession and explain its significance. 

Prompts About Reentry

  • Write an explanatory article about what it is like to go before the parole board.
  • Write a “how to” story on preparing to go home.
  • Describe your plans, dreams, or fears about reentry.
  • If you have already left prison, what were the challenges in getting resettled? What advice would you have for those coming after you? 

Visual Prompts

  • Illustrate a scene of prison life. Scenes to consider: your cell or dorm space, Chow Hall, educational rooms, places of worship, the Yard, library, visiting room, waiting room in medical. (Please send a few sentences describing the meaning behind your work, so we can share the story behind it.)

Download a PDF of our complete Submission Guidelines.