Sterling Cunio. (courtesy/PEN America)

An Oregon State Penitentiary inmate is one of eight people recently awarded a PEN America Writing for Justice Fellowship, which commissions writers to create “written works of lasting merit that illuminate critical issues related to mass incarceration and catalyze public debate.”

Sterling Cunio will write and produce a dramatic dialogue between Austin Reed -- who wrote the first African American memoir about incarceration, “The Life and Adventures of a Haunted Convict” -- and a 21st century prisoner. The similarities of prison dynamics, reform debates and social issues will be compared through poetic narration, theatrical elements and music, according to the PEN America website.

PEN America is a nonprofit that works to ensure that people have the freedom to create literature.

With the justice fellowship, “Our goal is to ignite a broad, sustained conversation about the dangers of over-incarceration and the imperative to mobilize behind rational and humane policies,” the PEN website reads.

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Cunio’s was one of more than 800 proposals for the fellowship. Cunio was a 2019 Oregon Literary Arts Fellow, has written for the Marshall Project and has won awards from PEN America for his essay “Going Forward with Gus” and co-authored play “The Bucket.”

Cunio was sentenced to life without parole at 16 after killing two people in a carjacking in 1994. In the 26 years Cunio has been in prison, he has spent time volunteering for hospice, mentoring younger prisoners and transforming the culture of street crime, according to his biography.

He is currently studying at the University of Oregon, where he’s majoring in crime, law and society.

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