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

Human Rights

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.

4. Are Prisons Obsolete?, Angela Y. Davis

This concise masterwork is where Davis makes her case for the abolition of prison systems. She doesn’t use the term “abolition” lightly; she acknowledges that every abolition movement imagined a future that seemed impossibly utopian. So too with modern-day prisons, Davis argues. Are Prisons Obsolete? criticizes a system that hinges on exploitation and profits. The U.S. dependency on prisons has become poisonous, both to individuals who experience it first-hand and to the public. “Are we willing to relegate ever larger numbers of people from racially oppressed communities to an isolated existence marked by authoritarian regimes, violence, disease, and technologies of seclusion that produce severe mental instability?” Davis asks, while pointing out that our era of mass incarceration has not had a proportional impact on public safety. In a book that is rich with brilliance, Davis challenges us to accept a path of “creatively exploring new terrains of justice, where the prison no longer serves as our major anchor.”

5. The Exonerated: A Play, Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen

The Exonerated draws from interviews with real-life death row inmates who were innocent of their crimes, as well as their letters, transcripts, and case files. The words of six men and one women come together in an astonishing and artful story about how decades of incarceration change the texture of a person’s soul. How does that soul go on? Once exonerated, how do you step back into society? At the same time, the play pursues the daunting question of why – why it happens that innocent people are not only incarcerated, but scheduled for execution. Their exonerations, after all, came out of an unnervingly lucky set of circumstances, rather than a rigorous application of our criminal justice system. The play is especially scathing about the fact that it is poor people who wind up on death row. Compellingly voiced and even with room for levity, The Exonerated played over 600 Off-Broadway performances starting in 2002 and toured the country for 27 weeks. Its been taking stages around the world ever since, but it is riveting too as a book.

6. Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, Michel Foucault

Foucault sets himself the task of tracing how prisons came to dominate modern punishment. Discipline and Punish is a provoking interrogation of how the use of power has – and has not – changed since society moved away from torture as the favored penalty. He pays particular attention to structures of supervision, like the panoptican, and how they divide society into a ruling class and a delinquent class. Foucault questions why prisons are favored even when they are not particularly successful, and he determines that prisons serve purposes that have nothing to do with reducing crime, or with reformist ideals. Moreover, he suggests that other social systems, including education and welfare, have learned to evolve from the principles of prison. More than 30 years after its English translation, Foucault’s book holds striking new relevancies for an era of increasing surveillance.

7. Soledad Brother, George Jackson

George Jackson was killed in 1970 when, two days before the opening of his controversial trial for the murder of a corrections officer, he was shot by a San Quentin tower guard who said that Jackson was attempting to escape. “No Black person will ever believe that George Jackson died the way they tell us he did,” wrote James Baldwin. Soledad Brother collects Jackson’s letters from the last six years of his life, written while he served his robbery sentence. (He stole $70 from an LA gas station in 1960, pled guilty, and got a one-year to life sentence. He spent a decade in prison, more than seven in solitary, before his death.) Jackson details the trauma of his incarceration and calls for African Americans to unite in defiance of racist and harsh treatment. His writing is insightful, charismatic, rich with stories, and brimming with the intimacy of true letters. Here, his passion and pain is laid plain.

8. Dead Man Walking, Sister Helen Prejean

Alas, the (very good) Susan Sarandon/Sean Pean film adaptation has overshadowed the book itself. This is a crime, as Sr. Helen Prejean’s insightful account of her work as a spiritual counselor to inmates on death row is a standout. What viewers of only the film miss is the book’s double-narrative: Prejean goes in-depth into the lives of two men who each pose different questions about what makes us terrified and what makes us terrifying. Prejean is fearless in her ability to look these men in the eye while also facing up to the horrific reality of the murders they committed, especially on the families left behind. Her eye is also on the people whose job it is to make execution happen. Throughout her rigorous exploration of the past and present of the death penalty in America -- as well as the uneven applications of punishment and crime -- Prejean also discusses what it means to activate her Christian faith, even when she is fearful, or repulsed. She is explicitly aware of the old-time call of “Dead Man Walking” as an image of resurrection.

9. The Gulag Archipelago 1918-1956: An Experiment in Literary Investigation, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

A breathtaking three-volume indictment of the expansive system of Soviet prisons and labor camps, The Gulag Archipelago is the work of both a literary artist and a fierce former prisoner. The book fuses eloquent investigation, imposing research, eyewitness testimony from hundreds of victims, and the fire of Solzhenitsyn’s personal narrative. The text is broken into a series of fascinating vignettes that flinches neither before brutality nor moral courage. By calling the work “an experiment in literary investigation,” Solzhenitsyn acknowledges his role as interpreter of the ‘country within a country’ that imprisoned tens of millions of people. Its undercover existence – the manuscript was passed hand-to-hand -- got Solzhenitsyn charged with treason and exiled from his country. For the last 20 years, it has been required reading in Russian high schools.

10. De Profundis, Oscar Wilde

After a series of trials for acts of “gross indecency” with other men, the great Irish writer was sentenced to two years of hard labor in English prison (the maximum allowed; the judge wanted to sentence him for longer). While incarcerated, he wrote De Profundis as a letter to Lord Alfred Douglas, his former lover. It chronicles the darkest times of Wilde’s life, and how he came to meet despair after embracing the art and practice of pleasure. The artist famed for his wit and irony is here achingly introspective and … well, earnest. “When first I was put into prison some people advised me to try and forget who I was,” he writes. “It was ruinous advice.” Wilde’s personal struggle is juxtaposed with his revolutionized understanding of spirituality. “Christ’s place indeed is with the poets.” After Wilde was released, he moved to France, where he wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol, a long poem about life in that prison. De Profundis was first published in 1905 – five years after Wilde died in Paris at age 46.

You Should Read These Books, Too:

Abolition Democracy: Beyond Empire, Prisons, and Torture, Angela Y. Davis

Society of Captives: A Study of a Maximum Security Prison, G.M. Sykes

A Place to Stand, Jimmy Santiago Baca

Letters & Papers from Prison, Dietrich Bonhoffer

A Question of Freedom: A Memoir of Learning, Survival, and Coming of Age in Prison, R. Dwayne Betts

The Death of Innocents: An Eyewitness Account of Wrongful Executions, Sr. Helen Prejean

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Alexander Solzhenitsyn

The Autobiography of Malcolm X, Malcolm X and Alex Haley

Race, Incarceration, and American Values, Glenn C. Loury, et. al.

In the Belly of the Beast, Jack Henry Abbott

Notes from the House of the Dead, Fyodor Dostoevsky

The Prison and the American Imagination, Caleb Smith

Is William Martinez Not Our Brother?: Twenty Years of the Prison Creative Arts Project, Buzz Alexander

By Heart: Poetry, Prison, and Two Lives, Judith Tannenbaum and Spoon Jackson

Prison Writing: My Life is My Sundance, Leonard Peltier

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