Jeffrey James Keyes, FCLC ’02, has been named a recipient of the inaugural PEN/ America/L’Engle-Rahman Prize for Mentorship. Named for Madeleine L’Engle, author of A Wrinkle in Time, and Ahmad Rahman, an educator and Black Panther leader whom L’Engle befriended while he was in prison, the award honors four mentor/mentee pairs in PEN America’s Prison Writing Program, which links established writers with those who are currently incarcerated.

Keyes and his mentee, Elizabeth Hawes, were recognized for showcasing “the best of what it means to treat those on the inside as equally human, equally meaningful, equally as capable of stirring our imaginations through the written word,” according to PEN America. Each of the eight winners received $250 and a set of books chosen by their respective mentor/mentee. 

A ‘Golden Partnership’

Hawes, who has been incarcerated since October 2008, contacted PEN America in hopes of getting feedback on her play Supernova, a series of monologues and scenes about women’s experiences in prison. She asked to be paired with a playwright who has experience staging a play. “Was what I had written clear? Was putting a Busby Berkley-style ballet in the middle madness or fantastic? Did the play as a whole come across as too heavy or too sad?” she wrote in an essay on PEN America’s website.

In Keyes, she found not just a source of feedback and support but a fellow writer with whom she could collaborate. “Regardless of where my play lands, I know that it is good,” she wrote. “It is moving and interesting and relevant to the conversation of mass incarceration. I present it with confidence. Jeffrey gave me confidence.”

Initially “blown away” by Hawes’ writing, Keyes said it was clear that he would be working with her not as an educator but as a colleague, an approach that can be rare for someone who is incarcerated. And he got a lot out of the relationship, too, “really [embarking]on a journey together,” he said, and receiving encouragement from Hawes when he needed it in return.

Keyes said his Fordham education made him truly appreciate the value of a strong mentor-mentee relationship, and understand “what it means to be a mentee and also to have extraordinary mentors.” For him, serving as a mentor for PEN’s program is about more than paying it forward—it’s about providing access, too, since receiving quality feedback from other writers is essential. “I think that it’s affirming for writers who have limited resources … to be able to share their work. I’m lucky that I have friends and colleagues that I can share material with and get high-quality feedback—not everybody has that access.”

The PEN America Prison Writing program had been on Keyes’ radar for some time, but he wanted a stronger sense of success and validation “besides just degrees” before he felt qualified to mentor. “Which is ridiculous,” said Keyes, whose plays have been developed or featured at such theaters as SoHo Playhouse, 59E59, and the Old Vic. It “doesn’t necessarily make you any better … or make you more qualified to be a mentor or to share insight on the world. I think that anybody can.”

Writing His Own Path

Keyes, who hails from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, said he has always been a writer, but when he moved to New York to attend Fordham College at Lincoln Center, it was to study theater. “I think theater is an amazing foundation for all different types of literature,” he said, adding that the Jesuit education he received at Fordham allowed him to explore a wide range of subjects.

And explore he did. After Fordham, he enrolled in Columbia University’s MFA program in playwriting and graduated in 2010. Since then, he’s continued to show versatility as a writer. He co-authored a New York Times best-selling novel, Killer Chef (BookShots, 2016), with James Patterson, and he contributes travel and lifestyle features to such publications as Metrosource Magazine and Passport Magazine, among others.

The Next Act

Currently, Keyes is working with a fellow writer from Milwaukee on a script for a new TV show pitch about the city in the 1980s, which he said is already garnering interest, as well as a solo book project.

Another one of his more recent projects, Digital Arrest, took the top prize in the Creative Technology category at the NYC Media Lab 2019 Demo Expo. A collaboration with Columbia’s SAFE Lab, Digital Arrest offers people released from prison “opportunities to gain relevant tech skills and earn a living utilizing their expertise to infuse the tech industry with nuanced cultural perspectives and deeper context regarding social media use, privacy, and ‘freedom of speech.’” Keyes said the project is based on the story of Jarrell Daniels, whose Facebook and Instagram accounts were used as evidence to help convict and sentence him to six years in prison when he was 17 years old.

“There’s a lot of nuance in social media,” Keyes said, adding that he hopes the project can help people coming out of prison to “gain a deeper sense of right and wrong social media practices,” and be mindful of how what they post can be misinterpreted.

“I think that social justice is personal,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of change that can happen and I think that we’re at a place where we can really start making that change.”