The best books for and about convicts and ex-convicts

Why am I passionate about this?

Incarceration is a gigantic problem in the US, especially because of its connection to racial injustice. I have no firsthand experience with prison or the system, and yet it looms large in my imagination and my deepest fears. That should not be the case merely because I’m a Black gay American, but here we are. I feel that with the help of my mother and others, I have managed to sidestep a lot of the potential pitfalls of people’s misguided perception of my identity, but I have an active, paranoid imagination and profound survivor guilt, so I gravitate toward stories about people at who are odds with our society in ways that reflect that precarious status which allows me to explore a wide range of human experiences.


I wrote...

Book cover of Didn't Nobody Give a Shit What Happened to Carlotta

What is my book about?

Carlotta is the story of Carlotta Mercedes, a Blatine trans woman who transitioned while incarcerated in a men’s facility in upstate New York from 1992–2015. The novel mostly follows her through her first day out, which happens to be July 4 weekend, mixing New York street talk and attitude with Ulysses, The Odyssey, and Chester Himes.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Beyond Bars: Rejoining Society After Prison

James Hannaham Why did I love this book?

This book is one of the most compassionate, no-nonsense, and highly informative books about the system out there.

It’s intended as a helpful guide for people who are about to leave prison, but if you’re on the outside and curious about the largely hidden, unconsidered, and technical aspects of incarceration in the USA, this book, like its earlier companion, Behind Bars, will blow your mind and maybe save your life, especially if you’re involved in the system.

Book cover of An American Marriage

James Hannaham Why did I love this book?

Tayari is one of the best writers in America—no qualifiers!—and she also has the advantage of a razor-sharp, accessible style.

This heartbreaking book about a couple torn apart and remade by the husband’s incarceration is gripping and sharply observed, and the characters, Celestial and Roy, are unforgettable. But don’t take my word for it—ask Oprah!

By Tayari Jones,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked An American Marriage as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A NEW YORK TIMES AND WASHINGTON POST NOTABLE BOOK

A 2018 BEST OF THE YEAR SELECTION OF NPR  * TIME  * BUSTLE  * O, THE OPRAH MAGAZINE  * THE DALLAS MORNING NEWS  * AMAZON.COM

OPRAH’S BOOK CLUB 2018 SELECTION

LONGLISTED FOR THE 2018 NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FOR FICTION

“A moving portrayal of the effects of a wrongful conviction on a young African-American couple.” —Barack Obama

“Haunting . . . Beautifully written.” —The New York Times Book Review
 
“Brilliant and heartbreaking . . . Unforgettable.” —USA Today
 
“A tense and timely love story . . . Packed with brave questions about…


Book cover of The Thief's Journal

James Hannaham Why did I love this book?

Genet’s prose really kicks a lot of others to the curb, even in translation, and the curb is where he is most comfortable. To paraphrase Wilde, he was definitely in the gutter but looking at the stars.

His visionary, unabashed grit, queer defiance, and uncanny lyrical ability really should make him required reading for everyone. But if you’re a defiant freak, you get mixed up in the prison system, and you need a North Star, you can’t do much better than Genet, a beautiful, wild thinker about all things related to the place of punishment and jails in society.

He truly lived the life he described, which people love nowadays. The Thief’s Journal is shockingly countercultural and exhilarating even now.

By Jean Genet,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Thief's Journal as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Jean Genet, French playwright, novelist and poet, turned the experiences in his life amongst pimps, whores, thugs and other fellow social outcasts into a poetic literature, with an honesty and explicitness unprecedented at the time. Widely considered an outstanding and unique figure in French literature, Genet wrote five novels between 1942 and 1947, now being republished by Faber & Faber in beautiful new paperback editions.

The Thief's Journal is perhaps Jean Genet's most authentically autobiographical novel; an account of his impoverished travels across 1930s Europe. The narrator is guilty of vagrancy, petty theft and prostitution, but his writing transforms such…


Book cover of You Got Nothing Coming: Notes From a Prison Fish

James Hannaham Why did I love this book?

Brooklyn native Lerner’s lightly fictionalized memoir is a tightly wound, observant, and even funny account of his time in a Nevada prison for involuntary manslaughter, and also a detailed tour of the contemporary American prison system.

He’s determined to tell the reader how the entire thing works, not just the day-to-day minutiae of prison life but the bigger picture about the way power moves through the guards and the legal system. It drips with sardonic wit and defiance.

It’s horrifying to consider how little experience with prison a lot of people (teenagers, often) have in thinking about their situation. If they got a hold of this book, they might avoid a whole lot of trouble.

Book cover of Yesterday Will Make You Cry

James Hannaham Why did I love this book?

This book has a provenance that’s almost like a prison sentence: released in 1953 under the title Cast the First Stone, it would have been Himes’ first novel, but its frankness about homosexual relationships in prison and the fact that a Black writer had written white main characters, made publishers shit their pants and doctor the life out of it to make it conform to 50s market expectations. Of course, in the process, they ruined it.

But in 1998, Old School Books released Himes’ "director’s cut,” a much different, more beautiful, raw, and thoughtful book that’s as much about prison life as it is about the prison of masculinity. Paradoxically, prison seems to be a place where people indulge homosexual desires, though the atmosphere somehow remains homophobic.

Reading this book could foster more compassion for queer desires, whether those of prisoners who identify as LGBTQIA+, or those who claim to be, as the expression goes, “gay for the stay.”

By Chester Himes, Marc Gerald (editor), Samuel Blumenfeld (editor)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Yesterday Will Make You Cry as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A classic restored-the complete and unexpurgated text of a great African-American writer's brutal and lyrical novel of prison life. First published in reduced and bowdlerized form in 1952 as Cast the First Stone, Yesterday Will Make You Cry was Chester Himes's first, most powerful, and autobiographical novel. This Old School Books edition presents it for the first time precisely as Himes wrote it, a sardonic masterpiece of debasement and transfiguration in an American penitentiary and one of his most enduring literary achievements.


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The Hunt for the Peggy C: A World War II Maritime Thriller

By John Winn Miller,

Book cover of The Hunt for the Peggy C: A World War II Maritime Thriller

John Winn Miller

New book alert!

What is my book about?

The Hunt for the Peggy C is best described as Casablanca meets Das Boot. It is about an American smuggler who struggles to rescue a Jewish family on his rusty cargo ship, outraging his mutinous crew of misfits and provoking a hair-raising chase by a brutal Nazi U-boat captain bent on revenge.

During the nerve-wracking 3,000-mile escape, Rogers falls in love with the family’s eldest daughter, Miriam, a sweet medical student with a militant streak. Everything seems hopeless when Jake is badly wounded, and Miriam must prove she’s as tough as her rhetoric to put down a mutiny by some of Jake’s fed-up crew–just as the U-boat closes in for the kill.

The Hunt for the Peggy C: A World War II Maritime Thriller

By John Winn Miller,

What is this book about?

John Winn Miller's THE HUNT FOR THE PEGGY C, a semifinalist in the Clive Cussler Adventure Writers Competition, captures the breathless suspense of early World War II in the North Atlantic. Captain Jake Rogers, experienced in running his tramp steamer through U-boat-infested waters to transport vital supplies and contraband to the highest bidder, takes on his most dangerous cargo yet after witnessing the oppression of Jews in Amsterdam: a Jewish family fleeing Nazi persecution.

The normally aloof Rogers finds himself drawn in by the family's warmth and faith, but he can't afford to let his guard down when Oberleutnant Viktor…


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