The best books about imprisonment (both literal and figurative)

Why am I passionate about this?

The idea for my first novel came from a 1946 study of Alabama parolees, linking individual characteristics to the likelihood of recidivism. The outcomes were surprising in many instances: “promising factors” such as education, profession, and intelligence didn’t correlate with good behavior. This got me thinking about the lasting effects of imprisonment. Sentences don’t necessarily end when an inmate walks out the prison door. I see this again and again in the previously incarcerated students I teach at Helena College—they’ve been released from an institution, but mental and physical imprisonment lingers, and sometimes grows. The books on this list don’t shy away from that hard reality.


I wrote...

Work Like Any Other

By Virginia Reeves,

Book cover of Work Like Any Other

What is my book about?

Long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, Work Like Any Other follows a prideful electrician as he struggles to overcome past sins, find peace, and rescue his marriage after being sent to prison for manslaughter. At the start of the twentieth century, Roscoe T Martin set his sights on a new type of power spreading across the country: electricity. But when his wife, Marie, inherits her father’s failing farm, Roscoe has to give up his livelihood, with great cost to his sense of self, his marriage, and his family.

Then a young man working for the state power company stumbles on Roscoe’s illegal lines and is electrocuted, and everything changes: Roscoe is arrested; the farm once more starts to deteriorate; and Marie abandons her husband, leaving him to face his twenty-year sentence alone.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The Executioner's Song

Virginia Reeves Why did I love this book?

I first read The Executioner’s Song in my early twenties, and scenes from it still linger in my memory. Though Mailer takes fictional liberties, the narrative closely follows the true story of Gary Gilmore, a murderer and thief who met his end by firing squad in Utah State Prison. We (as a society) are often quick to judge and categorize “criminals,” though the line between people who’ve served time and those who haven’t is much fainter than most believe. Gilmore commits heinous crimes and he’s still human. Monsters aren’t born, they’re made, and this book does a great job exposing that creation story.

By Norman Mailer,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked The Executioner's Song as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

WITH AN INTRODUCTION BY ANDREW O'HAGAN

In the summer of 1976 Gary Gilmore robbed two men. Then he shot them in cold blood. For those murders Gilmore was sent to languish on Death Row - and could confidently expect his sentence to be commuted to life imprisonment. In America, no one had been executed for ten years.

But Gary Gilmore wanted to die, and his ensuing battle with the authorities for the right to do so made him into a world-wide celebrity - and ensured that his execution turned into the most gruesome media event of the decade.


Book cover of Then the Fish Swallowed Him

Virginia Reeves Why did I love this book?

Set during the 2005 bus-driver strikes in Iran, this book explores imprisonment at nearly every level—from the confinement of a totalitarian regime to the physical and psychological torture of a political prisoner, to the locked doors of one’s own mind, to the escape sought (and sometimes found) in heroine. What sticks with me most, however, is the interior exploration of the main character, Yunus, and the way seemingly small decisions lead to enormous consequences. 

By Amir Ahmadi Arian,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Then the Fish Swallowed Him as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An critically-acclaimed Iranian author makes his American literary debut with this powerful and harrowing psychological portrait of modern Iran-an unprecedented and urgent work of fiction with echoes of The Stranger, 1984, and The Orphan Master's Son-that exposes the oppressive and corrosive power of the state to bend individual lives.

Yunus Turabi, a bus driver in Tehran, leads an unremarkable life. A solitary man since the unexpected deaths of his father and mother years ago, he is decidedly apolitical-even during the driver's strike and its bloody end. But everyone has their breaking point, and Yunus has reached his.

Handcuffed and blindfolded,…


Book cover of Jack

Virginia Reeves Why did I love this book?

I don’t think I’ve made a list of books that doesn’t include something by Marilynne Robinson. Though linked to her other Gilead books, Jack can easily be read on its own, and it does an incredible job exploring the after-effects of prison time against the backdrop of racial (and societal) inequality. Both a love story and a rumination on regret, this novel takes an unflinching look at the prisons we build around ourselves and the difficulties we face when we try to escape.

By Marilynne Robinson,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Jack as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'Grace and intelligence . . . [her work] defines universal truths about what it means to be human' BARACK OBAMA

'Radiant and visionary' SARAH PERRY, GUARDIAN

A NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER

A BARACK OBAMA BOOK OF THE YEAR 2020

AN OPRAH'S BOOK CLUB PICK

Marilynne Robinson, winner of the Pulitzer Prize and the American National Humanities Medal, returns to the world of Gilead with Jack, the final in one of the great works of contemporary American fiction.

Jack tells the story of John Ames Boughton, the loved and grieved-over prodigal son of a Presbyterian minister in Gilead, Iowa, a drunkard…


Book cover of Katalin Street

Virginia Reeves Why did I love this book?

Szabó is another of my all-time favorite authors, and I return to her books again and again. Katalin Street explores the devastating effects of Germany’s occupation of Budapest upon three different, neighboring families. Characters are imprisoned in a variety of ways: Bálint serves time in a prison camp; the Elekes family serves time in the small apartment to which they’re moved during the occupation; everyone serves time in the prison of their memories, including the ghost of sweet Henriette, who haunts the narrative. 

By Magda Szabo, Len Rix (translator),

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

BY THE AUTHOR OF THE DOOR, ONE OF NYTBR'S TEN BEST BOOKS OF 2015

** WINNER OF THE 2018 PEN TRANSLATION PRIZE **

** SHORTLISTED FOR THE WARWICK WOMEN IN TRANSLATION PRIZE 2019 **

"Extraordinary" New York Times

"Quite unforgettable" Daily Telegraph

"Unusual, piercing . . . oddly percipient" Irish Times

"A gorgeous elegy" Publishers Weekly

"A brightly shining star in the Szabo universe" World Literature Today

In prewar Budapest three families live side by side on gracious Katalin Street, their lives closely intertwined. A game is played by the four children in which Balint, the promising son of the…


Book cover of Texas Tough: The Rise of America's Prison Empire

Virginia Reeves Why did I love this book?

This is the only piece of nonfiction on this list, but the plot is as tortuous and epic as any good novel. This book helped me understand the vast inequities inherent in our prison industry—from mandatory sentencing to privatization to the abhorrent practice of convict leasing, aptly known as “slavery by another name.” If there’s any hope of rehabilitating the country’s prison system, we must learn its history—as ugly and unjust as it might be. This is a hard read, but an immensely important one. 

By Robert Perkinson,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In the prison business, all roads lead to Texas. A pioneer in criminal justice severity―from assembly-line executions to supermax isolation, from mandatory sentencing to prison privatization―Texas is the most locked-down state in the most incarcerated country in the world. Texas Tough, a sweeping history of American imprisonment from the days of slavery to the present, explains how a plantation-based penal system once dismissed as barbaric became a template for the nation.

Drawing on the individual stories as well as authoritative research, Texas Tough reveals the true origins of America's prison juggernaut and points toward a more just and humane future.


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Book cover of Liddy-Jean Marketing Queen and the Matchmaking Scheme

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