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Prisoner’s Experience in Solitary Wins PEN America Writing Award

by Jacob Barrett

Former prisoner Alex Tretbar won PEN America’s first-place award for poetry in September 2022 for his poem “Variations on an Undisclosed Location.” Tretbar, 33, penned the poem during his five-year incarceration with the Oregon Department of Corrections (DOC) at Deer Ridge Correctional Institution.

While incarcerated, Tretbar worked as a prison library clerk and tutored for the General Education Diploma (GED) program. But he also spent time in solitary confinement. It was there, scratching the lyrics of a Lou Reed song in his cell, that he found inspiration for “Variations.” Tretbar said the poem represents his attempts to process the impact solitary confinement had on his personality and his perception of time, as well as his struggles with addiction, lived experiences with suffering, and racism.

Tretbar said he struggled with creating a poem that described how to feel about prison. The young writer encourages people not to make up their minds too quickly about what kind of people go to prison or who comes out of it. Tretbar credited several mentors from the University of Oregon for providing the prompt that led him to create the poem. He also acknowledged their help in developing his writing and encouraging him. 

It was Tretbar’s second PEN America award. He had previously won second place for poetry and fiction writing. He also is not the first Oregon prisoner to find success through PEN America projects. In 2002, PEN America published The Sentences That Create Us: Crafting a Writer’s Life in Prison, a collection of prisoner writing featuring Sterling Cunio, a juvenile lifer who was granted clemency by Oregon’s then-governor Kate Brown (D). The book features a forward by former Virginia prisoner Reginald Dwayne Betts, who founded the Million Book Project (now known as Freedom Reads). [See: PLN, Feb. 2023, p.12.]

PEN America has been a resource for prisoners since its Prison and Justice Writing Initiatives program was founded in 1971, following riots at New York’s Attica State Prison. The program promotes prisoner literacy and free expression, spotlighting the achievements of prisoners “who are critically reshaping the conversation on mass incarceration, advocacy, and justice in the United States.” The group offers The Sentences That Create Us free to prisoners.

Additional sources: Missouri Independent, Oregon Public Broadcasting


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