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10 Books About Prison That Will Make You Rethink the United States Penal System

We take for granted that more than 2 million US citizens are incarcerated. These books suggest it's time to rethink the whole operation.

While the fact of prisons simmers behind innumerable news stories – from the West Memphis 3 to the Lockerbie bomber to the Miami football scandal -- the enormity of the system remains weirdly invisible. Prison is framed as a sort of conclusion; it’s where the bad guys go before vanishing into the ether and allowing our attention to move onto the next story. But more than two million lives are lived in U.S. prisons these days. And not only is the day-to-day reality of that worthy of more attention, but so are the consequences of our economic and political dependence on a punitive system that incarcerates 25 percent of the entire world’s inmates. Five percent of the world population is locked up in U.S. prisons. Both inside and outside the walls, much is stake.


Here are ten of the best books – contemporary and classic, fiction and nonfiction – about prisons. They are listed in no particular order, as all of them deserve your attention. Because incarceration isn’t an end to our stories: it’s just another beginning.

1. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, Michelle Alexander

Michelle Alexander puts her sharp legal mind to work in examining how criminal records are used to define what opportunities are and are not available to certain U.S. citizens -- in a way that dangerously mirrors Jim Crow laws. People of color are disproportionately represented in U.S. prisons, which means that the legality of denying former inmates the right to vote, access to food stamps, fair housing, employment opportunities, and exclusion from jury duty supports a society that is effectively not different than the segregation era. Alexander, a longtime civil rights advocate, says in the preface that “this book is not for everyone. I have a specific audience in mind – people who care deeply about racial justice but who, for any number of reasons, do not yet appreciate the magnitude of the crisis faced by communities of color as a result of mass incarceration.”

2. On the Yard, Malcolm Braly

This 1967 classic was recovered and revived by the New York Review of Books, which published it with a new introduction by Jonathon Lethem. Braly spent most of his life moving among placements in foster homes, detention centers, and, on burglary charges, prisons in California and Nevada. While incarcerated, he wrote three novels. On the Yard was written while he was on parole – in secret. His parole would have been revoked if authorities knew about the manuscript. On the Yard takes a close-up look at the people of San Quentin prison. It’s a novel carried by language: the shifting rhythms of speech, its music and abruptness, the possibilities and the threat of words. Often portrayed as the prison counterpart to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, On the Yard, in fact, stands on its own.

3. Newjack: Guarding Sing Sing, Ted Conover

Conover’s book has become a classic of undercover investigative journalism. It tells of a year that he spent as a correctional officer at Sing Sing, the maximum-security prison in Ossining, New York. Here, Conover explores the uncomfortable realities of what it means to spend ones waking hours behind prison walls – both for inmates and for staff. As Conover negotiates what it means to do his job well, he also tells of how Sing Sing came to be, including its history as a prison built by prisoners that served as New York’s favorite place to host executions, and is today the facility that staff least want to work at. Between striking narratives of the people Conover encounters in Sing Sing, there is also his transparent wrangling with how to communicate what he sees as an ethical journalist. What ultimately makes Newjack a singular book is Conover’s capacity to withstand ambiguity and nuance. He discards stereotypes of both inmates and officers; he questions both the existence of prisons and the (imagined) nonexistence of them. Conover is not quick to conclusions. Rather, he is a curious and whip-smart writer who risks -- physically, emotionally, intellectually -- being present.