Department of English
PCW Title

Illustration by Kendrick Mitchell, Pen City Illustrator


Pen City Writers


Pen City Writers
Class of 2019

The Pen City Writers is a set of creative writing workshops for students who are incarcerated at the John B. Connally Unit, a maximum-security prison in south Texas. The students earn a creative writing certificate, and they receive university credit through UT Extension. The program is sponsored by the English Department.

We are a cooperative of writers, as well as a class. Our students have their own library, publish their own journal of writing and artwork, win awards, publish in magazines, and most importantly, are learning to be writers and thinkers behind bars. The emphasis of the program is on academic rigor and excellence, community-building, creativity, self-determination, and leadership. Our core ambition is for all Pen City Writers to become publishable writers, inspired readers, rising teachers, and driven academics.

The director of the program is Professor Deb Olin Unferth. Contact her for more information: debou@utexas.eduWe have volunteer opportunities and one paid internship per year.



Pen City Writers Library

The Pen City Writers has its own small university library inside the prison, along with a prison pen-pal book club. UT students and other people from all over the country participate by reading books alongside the Pen City Writers and corresponding about the books. To keep the library growing, once a year the PCW students and professor compile a list of a hundred new books to add to the library. We then run a book drive, partnered with the local bookstore BookPeople to purchase them. The PCW Library has been one of the most vibrant, appreciated, and well-used parts of PCW. 



Pen City 2

Pen City 2 is the pre-class inside the unit. It is led by former PCW students. As students graduate out of the main class, they teach this class together, helping new students who want to apply to the main class. Graduates help expand their literary community behind bars by giving craft talks, recommending books, giving feedback, teaching new students what it is to be in a college classroom, while at the same time practicing their own skills and professionalism. We learned from the incarcerated community how important it is to them to be able to take on leadership positions, such as this, for intellectual growth, agency, and self-determination.



Pen City Illustrators

by Chris Williams, Pen City Illustrator

Pen City Illustrators is another arm of PCW. It is a small art program inside the prison. Incarcerated students hand in comics and illustrations in response to assignments. Professional artists and graphic novelists in different parts of the country receive scans of the work and provide feedback. These artist-mentors also help us grow the visual art section of our library. Illustrator and UT alum Jessica Vacek is the program founder, coordinator, and instructor.







Pen City Community

Kids books for the visitation room!

Pen City Community is a donation-based service arm of PCW, where we identify and support different educational needs at the Connally Unit, not directly connected to PCW. For example, Pen City Community purchased music supplies and scores for the Connally music class, graduation robes for the HSE program, and children’s books for the visitation room.

In addition to supporting the incarcerated community, we believe it is also important to support Connally employees in educational projects. To this end, each fall Pen City Community purchases boxes of back-to-school supplies for guards’ children. We also instituted an annual Excellence in Education Award for any Connally Unit staff member or guard who is supportive of educational initiatives. When HSE teachers were required to teach in person through the pandemic, we sent them small B&N gift cards and essential-worker thank-you cards. These are just a few of the initiatives we’ve sponsored. The money comes from external donations.

The Pen City Writer students and the professor decide together which initiatives to support.



Other Pen City Initiatives

The Insider Prize

The Pen City Writers inspired the creation of the Insider Prize, an annual creative writing contest for people incarcerated in Texas. It is sponsored by American Short Fiction and is run by Maurice and Emily Chammah. Its past judges have been Mitchell S. Jackson, Justin Torres, Lydia Davis, and Joyce Carol Oates.

The Million Book Project

During Covid lockdown, the Pen City Writers took part in poet and activist Dwayne Betts’s Million Book Project, sponsored by the Mellon Foundation. This project aims to place 500-book libraries in a thousand prisons across the country. The Pen City Writers sampled books from this list in book circles and wrote letters evaluating and discussing them.

The Pen City Writers are continually initiating new projects. They have exchanged stories for feedback with numerous UT classes, done a creative collaboration with students at Hendrix College, written song lyrics with the music class inside the prison, and much more.



Selected Awards and Publications of the Pen City Writers

Pen City Writers
Annual awards

Pen City Writers Calvin Massengale and Carlos Flores are published in 2021 in the Stranger’s Guide, the Texas issue.

Pen City Writer Steven Perez wins the 2020 Insider Prize in memoir for "The Promise."

James Beavers receives an honorable mention in the 2019 PEN America Prison Writing Awards for fiction. Hear James's story read aloud.

Pen City Writer Kevin Murphy is a finalist for the 2019 Insider Prize in memoir for "Bucknaked Gurney Unit."

Pen City Writer Terrance Harvey publishes “Third Visit” in 2019 in StoryQuarterly.

Pen City Writers wins the 2017 Texas Governor's Criminal Justice Volunteer Service Award.

Pen City Writer Carlos Flores publishes in 2017 in the Marshall Project’s Life Inside series.

Pen City Writers Carlos Flores, Anthony Johnson, Jose Maria Garcia, and Jason Gallegos publish in 2017 in Vice Magazine.

Pen City Writers Kevin Murphy, Jason Gallegos, and Jose Maria Garcia publish in 2017 in Vice Magazine.

The Pen City Writers publish the second issue of their journal.