The best books on college in US prisons

Who am I?

I have been involved with teaching in prison for the last 22 years, and have taught everything from creative writing to meditation to college classes across carceral facilities in New York, California, and Massachusetts. As the founder and director of the Emerson Prison Initiative at Emerson College’s campus at Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Concord, I constantly work with faculty and students who are navigating the teaching and learning environment under some of the most adverse circumstances. These books have helped me feel less alone in this work.

I wrote...

Education Behind the Wall: Why and How We Teach College in Prison

By Mneesha Gellman,

Book cover of Education Behind the Wall: Why and How We Teach College in Prison

What is my book about?

This book seeks to address some of the major issues faced by faculty who are teaching college classes for incarcerated students. This volume brings together scholars who articulate some of the best practices for teaching their expertise inside prison alongside honest reflections on the reality of educational implementation in a constrained environment. The book provides essential guidance about teaching in prisons, and also places the work of higher education in prisons in philosophical context with regard to racial, economic, social, and gender-based issues. Rather than solely a how-to handbook, this book helps readers think through the trade-offs that happen when teaching in prison, and about how to ensure the full integrity of college access for incarcerated students.

Shepherd is reader supported. When you buy books, we may earn an affiliate commission.

The books I picked & why

Book cover of College in Prison: Reading in an Age of Mass Incarceration

Why did I love this book?

In Daniel Karpowitz’s book, he takes readers behind the scenes in college-in-prison classrooms to explore what a liberal arts education can offer people who are incarcerated, and the educators who facilitate them. Karpowitz was a mentor and a guide as I was building my own college-in-prison program. His steadfast belief in the human capacity for transformative learning shines through in these accessible, riveting pages of what it means to read the canon from a position of marginalization.

By Daniel Karpowitz,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked College in Prison as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The nationally renowned Bard Prison Initiative demonstrates how the liberal arts can alter the landscape inside prisons by expanding access to the transformative power of American higher education. American colleges and universities have made various efforts to provide prisoners with access to education. However, few of these outreach programs presume that incarcerated men and women can rise to the challenge of a truly rigorous college curriculum. The Bard Prison Initiative, however, is different. As this compelling new book reveals, BPI has fostered a remarkable transformation in the lives of thousands of prisoners. College in Prison chronicles how, since 2001, Bard…

Book cover of American Prison: A Reporter's Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment

Why did I love this book?

I could not stop reading this book once I started, and I stayed up late into the night glued to its pages. Bauer, a journalist, takes us inside the prison where he got a job as a correctional officer. Through engrossing prose that pairs his daily experiences with carefully researched historical context about incarceration in the United States, Bauer shows what prisons represent in real time. 

By Shane Bauer,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked American Prison as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An enraging, necessary look at the private prison system, and a convincing clarion call for prison reform.” —

New York Times Book Review 10 Best Books of 2018 * One of President Barack Obama’s favorite books of 2018 * Winner of the 2019 J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize * Winner of the Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism * Winner of the 2019 RFK Book and Journalism Award * A New York Times Notable Book 

A ground-breaking and brave inside reckoning with the nexus of prison and profit in America: in one Louisiana prison and over the course…

Book cover of Critical Perspectives on Teaching in Prison: Students and Instructors on Pedagogy Behind the Wall

Why did I love this book?

There has been a gap in the literature of books speaking to what it actually means to teach students in prison, and Ginsburg’s book contributes to filling it. Through careful curation, Ginsburg’s edited volume is a highly useful resource for anyone considering teaching in prison, or looking for reading to reflect on teaching that has already taken place.

By Rebecca Ginsburg (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Critical Perspectives on Teaching in Prison as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This volume makes a case for engaging critical approaches for teaching adults in prison higher education (or "college-in-prison") programs. This book not only contextualizes pedagogy within the specialized and growing niche of prison instruction, but also addresses prison abolition, reentry, and educational equity. Chapters are written by prison instructors, currently incarcerated students, and formerly incarcerated students, providing a variety of perspectives on the many roadblocks and ambitions of teaching and learning in carceral settings. All unapologetic advocates of increasing access to higher education for people in prison, contributors discuss the high stakes of teaching incarcerated individuals and address the dynamics,…

Higher Education Accessibility Behind and Beyond Prison Walls

By Dani V. McMay (editor), Rebekah D. Kimble (editor),

Book cover of Higher Education Accessibility Behind and Beyond Prison Walls

Why did I love this book?

McMay and Kimble’s edited volume brings together a wide range of case studies looking at some form of higher education behind bars. Meant to showcase many different forms of higher education in prison, this book underscores the diversity of what higher education in prison can look like. In each case study, strengths and challenges of a given approach are visible and provide an honest look at how to support learners in a range of circumstances.

*Disclaimer—I have a chapter in this volume.

By Dani V. McMay (editor), Rebekah D. Kimble (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Higher Education Accessibility Behind and Beyond Prison Walls as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Numerous studies indicate that completing a college degree reduces an individual's likelihood of recidivating. However, there is little research available to inform best practices for running college programs inside jails or prisons or supporting returning citizens who want to complete a college degree. Higher Education Accessibility Behind and Beyond Prison Walls examines program development and pedagogical techniques in the area of higher education for students who are currently incarcerated or completing a degree post-incarceration. Drawing on the experiences of program administrators and professors from across the country, it offers best practices for (1) developing, running, and teaching in college programs…

Book cover of We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom

Why did I love this book?

Ok, this book is not specifically about teaching in prison, but it is about teaching from an abolitionist perspective, which is relevant to the same readers interested in teaching in prison. I first read it as part of a National Alliance for Higher Education in Prison’s book group, along with my colleagues from the Emerson Prison Initiative. Love makes the argument that education merely for survival does a disservice to humanness, and transactional education reinforces social hierarchies. Alternatively, abolitionist teaching looks to connect education to liberation.

By Bettina L. Love,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked We Want to Do More Than Survive as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the 2020 Society of Professors of Education Outstanding Book Award

Drawing on personal stories, research, and historical events, an esteemed educator offers a vision of educational justice inspired by the rebellious spirit and methods of abolitionists.

Drawing on her life’s work of teaching and researching in urban schools, Bettina Love persuasively argues that educators must teach students about racial violence, oppression, and how to make sustainable change in their communities through radical civic initiatives and movements. She argues that the US educational system is maintained by and profits from the suffering of children of color. Instead of trying…

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in higher education, prisoners, and prison?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about higher education, prisoners, and prison.

Higher Education Explore 26 books about higher education
Prisoners Explore 89 books about prisoners
Prison Explore 36 books about prison