LIANE HANSEN, host:

Before I introduce our next story, you should know it contains strong language, which may not be appropriate for children.

This week, six published writers challenged a group of inmates in a northern California prison to a throwdown. Who could write the best short story in 35 minutes?

Reporter Nancy Mullane from member station KALW has more.

NANCY MULLANE: For seven years, authors Kent Zimmerman and his twin brother Keith have been teaching inmates in San Quentin State Prison how to write the stories locked up inside their minds. And over the years, Zimmerman says, they've discovered untapped talent behind the walls.

Mr. KENT ZIMMERMAN: We've always wondered how our writing that gets written in this class, that's immediately puked onto the page, so to speak, how it stacks up with professional ones.

MULLANE: So, he asked some published authors to challenge the inmates in this program.

(Soundbite of cell doors)

MULLANE: After passing through layers of prison security and making his way to the classroom, crime writer David Corbett says he's ready for the throwdown.

Mr. DAVID CORBETT (Crime Writer): Some of the most important things that have happened to me is when I have gotten knocked on my ass and had to pick myself up again. And I got a feeling, you know, this could be very humbling in a good way.

MULLANE: Zimmerman makes his introductions, hands out big pens and pads of white-lined paper and holding a thick read marker, writes the secret prompt on the whiteboard.

Mr. ZIMMERMAN: You've just experienced a personal setback. The name of the subject is: Damn, now I'm back on square one again.

MULLANE: The men look around as if trying to pull an idea from the air. The room grows quiet, except for the sounds of pens scribbling on pads.

(Soundbite of scribbling)

MULLANE: Thirty-five minutes later, Zimmerman announces time's up.

Mr. ZIMMERMAN: Next week will be literary throwdown part two, the reading and the judging.

MULLANE: Roth Kissman(ph) is serving a sentence for vehicular manslaughter. He's shaken by the throwdown experience.

Mr. ROTH KISSMAN: Intelligence in that room was intimidating. It's probably the scariest moment I've had in prison.

(Soundbite of officer speaking of PA system)

Mr. KISSMAN: It's very challenging, which is good.

MULLANE: A week later in class, the results. The Zimmerman brothers read aloud the anonymous writings - six from the inmates and six from the authors - to a panel of three prominent judges.

Mr. ZIMMERMAN: Let's start with something really cool here. The afternoon was hot and muggy, one of those long August days. I lay half-comatose on the floor of my living room...

MULLANE: Twelve stories later, some punctuated by howls of laughter, others by groans of shared pain, the judge's scores are tallied. Zimmerman writes then on the board. 229 to 229.5.

Mr. ZIMMERMAN: And I must tell you, the winner is the San Quentin team.

(Soundbite of applause)

MULLANE: For NPR News, I'm Nancy Mullane.

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