Freedom Reads, National Book Foundation, Center for Justice Innovation Launch First Major US Book Prize to Be Judged Exclusively by Incarcerated People

Inaugural “Inside Literary Prize” will send a selection of National Book Award honorees to hundreds of incarcerated people in a dozen prisons across the country; Inside Literary Prize winner to be announced in June 2024

Today, Freedom Reads, the National Book Foundation, and the Center for Justice Innovation announced the launch of the Inside Literary Prize, the first-ever US-based literary prize awarded exclusively by currently incarcerated people. The prize will be awarded in June 2024 to one exceptional book by a jury of 300 incarcerated individuals from a dozen prisons across the nation. This new initiative, which is also supported by Lori Feathers, literary podcaster and co-owner of Interabang Books, seeks to expand access to our country’s most thought-provoking literature for people who are incarcerated.

Over the coming months, 25 judges at each of 12 prisons across six states -- including both men’s and women’s facilities -- will be given copies of the four National Book Award–honored books listed below. Freedom Reads will provide each facility with additional sets of each book for general circulation in the facility library, as well as for correctional staff. Throughout the Spring 2024, Inside Literary Prize organizers will travel to each prison to lead live discussions, conduct voting, and host literary readings with acclaimed authors previously honored by the National Book Awards.

"Reading literature and poetry throughout my nearly nine years in prison played an enormous role in shaping the person I am today," said Freedom Reads Founder & CEO Reginald Dwayne Betts. "Through the reading and judging of leading American literary works, the Inside Literary Prize competition will provide a national platform for incarcerated individuals to meaningfully participate in our shared national cultural conversation. Freedom Reads could not be more proud to work with our partners on this initiative as we turn this vision into an annual reality. Freedom begins with a book."

"The Inside Literary Prize fosters meaningful dialogue around some of the most exceptional books of our time," said Ruth Dickey, Executive Director of the National Book Foundation. "The National Book Foundation is proud to continue our partnership with Freedom Reads around this new initiative with the Center for Justice Innovation and Lori Feathers, which furthers our commitment to connect readers across the country with National Book Award–honored authors and their work."

"It is inspiring to partner with correctional facilities around the country to launch this literary prize that honors how engaging with great books can both build community and facilitate a deeper appreciation of our shared human experience," said Lori Feathers, literary podcaster and co-owner, Interabang Books. 

"We are thrilled to support the Inside Literary Prize, which connects currently incarcerated people with some of the nation's best literature," said Courtney Bryan, Executive Director of the Center for Justice Innovation. "The Center for Justice Innovation is committed to elevating the voices of those impacted by the legal system and building safe, strong, just communities. The Inside Literary Prize uses the power of books to support the dignity of those who are incarcerated, valuing their insight and celebrating our shared humanity."

The books to be considered for the inaugural prize were determined by a Selection Committee comprising incarcerated readers, writers, and Departments of Corrections librarians, who chose the following four books from the list of Finalists for the 2022 National Book Awards:

Tess Gunty, The Rabbit Hutch
Alfred A. Knopf / Penguin Random House

Jamil Jan Kochai, The Haunting of Hajji Hotak and Other Stories
Viking Books / Penguin Random House

Imani Perry, South to America: A Journey Below the Mason-Dixon to Understand the Soul of a Nation
Ecco / HarperCollins Publishers

Roger Reeves, Best Barbarian
W. W. Norton & Company


A currently incarcerated member of the Selection Committee, Courtney Quillen, shared in a letter that "The experience was a wonderful one. The thrill of exciting new books is one we cherish," adding "We are thankful to have been a part of this project."

Corinne Leone, Director of New York State Correctional Library Services Library Services, also served on the Selection Committee, and summed up her feelings about the experience – "I wish I could read all day, lately."

Another member of the Selection Committee, a formerly incarcerated writer named Dempsey, shared his thoughts about this initiative: "I like to read books as much as Charles Dickens liked to write them. Books were my salvation in prison. They enabled me to think better about myself and the world. As a free man, my work with Freedom Reads allows me to help those incarcerated find joy, peace, knowledge, and perspective through books. In essence, I view the Freedom Reads agenda as a gift the way literature is a gift. An eternal gift that leads one on an exploration into the highest and lowest levels of the human spirit, of the imagination, and of the heart."

About Freedom Reads: 

Founded by Reginald Dwayne Betts, who knows firsthand the dispiriting forces of prison, Freedom Reads works to empower people through literature to confront what prison does to the spirit. Supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation and inspired by the recognition that freedom begins with a book, Freedom Reads supports the efforts of people in prison to transform their lives through increased access to books and writers. For more information about Freedom Reads, please visit https://freedomreads.org.

About the National Book Foundation:

The mission of the National Book Foundation, presenter of the National Book Awards, is to celebrate the best literature published in the United States, expand its audience, and ensure that books have a prominent place in our culture. The Foundation approaches this work from four programmatic angles: Awards & Honors recognize exceptional authors, advocates, literature, and literary programs; Education & Access initiatives foster a lifelong passion for books in young and adult readers; Public Programs bring acclaimed authors to communities nationwide to engage in conversations about books and showcase the power of literature as a tool for understanding our world; and Service to the Literary Field, provides support to the national literary ecosystem. Information on all of the Foundation’s programs can be found online at nationalbook.org.

About the Center for Justice Innovation:

The Center for Justice Innovation works with communities and justice systems to advance equity, increase safety, and help individuals and communities thrive. The Center's goal is to identify and resolve as early as possible the challenges that bring people into the criminal and civil legal systems. Since its founding in 1996, the Center has grown to a nationwide organization with more than 800 employees staffing dozens of initiatives in New York, New Jersey, and California, advising practitioners and policymakers across the country and around the world, and conducting research and sharing their expertise with those seeking to transform the justice system.

For more information, please contact:

Ivan Dominguez, Chief Communications Officer & Director of Development
Freedom Reads
[email protected]
917-902-6953

Ale Romero, Communications & Marketing Manager
National Book Foundation
[email protected]
212-685-0261

Rob Wolf, Communications Advisor
Center for Justice Innovation
[email protected]
646-386-4464



Original Source: Freedom Reads, National Book Foundation, Center for Justice Innovation Launch First Major US Book Prize to Be Judged Exclusively by Incarcerated People
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