The best books about mass incarceration

James Kilgore Author Of Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People's Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time
By James Kilgore

Who am I?

I've been a social justice activist all my life. In my younger years, I turned to violence to bring about liberation. That landed me a federal arrest warrant which I avoided for 27 years by living as a fugitive. I spent most of that time in southern Africa, joining freedom movements against apartheid and colonialism. Arrested and extradited to the U.S. in 2002 I spent 6 1/2 years in California prisons while observing the impact of mass incarceration. I vowed to direct my energy to end mass incarceration through grassroots organizing. Since then I've been a writer, researcher, and activist in my local community of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois as well as being partner and father to my two sons.

I wrote...

Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People's Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time

By James Kilgore,

Book cover of Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People's Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time

What is my book about?

Drawing on a growing body of literature and activism, Understanding Mass Incarceration describes competing theories of criminal justice—from rehabilitation to retribution, from restorative justice to justice reinvestment. In a lively, accessible style, author James Kilgore, who spent six years in prison himself, illuminates the difference between prisons and jails, probation and parole, laying out key concepts and policies such as the War on Drugs, broken windows policing, three-strikes sentencing, the school-to-prison pipeline, recidivism, and prison privatization. Informed by the crucial lenses of race and gender, he addresses issues typically omitted from the discussion: the rapidly increasing incarceration of women, Latinx folk, and transgender people; the growing imprisonment of immigrants; and the devastating impact of mass incarceration on communities.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

Why did I love this book?

This is the most popular introduction to mass incarceration. Alexander views mass incarceration through the lens of racial justice, focusing on how locking up millions of people, a disproportionate number of whom are Black, amounts to a new system of racial segregation. The New Jim Crow has been a catalyst for understanding and activism for thousands of people across the country and has spent several years on the New York Times bestseller list. 

By Michelle Alexander,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked The New Jim Crow as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Seldom does a book have the impact of Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow. Since it was first published in 2010, it has been cited in judicial decisions and has been adopted in campus-wide and community-wide reads; it has been the winner of numerous prizes, including the NAACP Image Award; and it has spent nearly 250 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. Most important of all, it has spawned a whole generation of criminal justice reform activists motivated by Michelle Alexander's unforgettable argument that 'we have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it.'

Book cover of Abolition for the People: The Movement for a Future Without Policing & Prisons

Why did I love this book?

If we are to reverse, dismantle, or eliminate mass incarceration we need an alternative model for addressing a reality where harm and injustice exist. We can never eliminate harm, but this book, through short writings by well-known authors constructs not only a clear case for eliminating prisons, jails, and policing but helps us to imagine how we might get to such a world through our own collective actions. Brought together by the most famous person to be banished by the National Football League, this volume stirs the soul and takes us on what may perhaps be an uncomfortable but very necessary journey. I have one essay in this book, entitled "Challenge E-Carceration" which contests the notion that electronic monitors and other punitive technologies are an alternative to incarceration. 

By Colin Kaepernick (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Abolition for the People as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Edited by activist and former San Francisco 49ers super bowl quarterback Colin Kaepernick, Abolition for the People is a manifesto calling for a world beyond prisons and policing.

Abolition for the People brings together thirty essays representing a diversity of voices―political prisoners, grassroots organizers, scholars, and relatives of those killed by the anti-Black terrorism of policing and prisons. This collection presents readers with a moral choice: “Will you continue to be actively complicit in the perpetuation of these systems,” Kaepernick asks in his introduction, “or will you take action to dismantle them for the benefit of a just future?”



By Albert Woodfox,

Book cover of Solitary

Why did I love this book?

Any understanding of mass incarceration must be grounded in the experience of people who have been incarcerated. Alfred Woodfox’s autobiography of spending more than four decades in prison, the bulk of it in solitary confinement, is both a rich political analysis by a revolutionary who emerged from the Black Panther Party and a deeply troubling account of the tortured existence of hundreds of thousands of people locked away in US prisons for acts that they either did not carry out or for which ridiculously punitive laws and policies in addressing apparent harms done have been applied. No book about prison life will convince a reader more of the inhumanity of mass incarceration nor of the ability of a revolutionary human spirit to conquer whatever comes their way. 

By Albert Woodfox,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Praise for Solitary:

Named One of Barack Obama’s Favorite Books of 2019
Winner of the Stowe Prize
Named the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities Book of the Year
Named a Best Book of the Year by the New York Times, the Washington Post, NPR, Publishers Weekly, BookBrowse, and Literary Hub
Winner of the BookBrowse Award for Best Debut of 2019
A New York Times Book Review Editors’ Choice

“An uncommonly powerful memoir about four decades in confinement . . . A profound book about…

Book cover of Golden Gulag: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California

Why did I love this book?

Along with Angela Davis, Ruth Wilson Gilmore is one of the major idea shapers and strategists of abolition in the 21st century. The Golden Gulag explains in rich detail why mass incarceration was a product of the crisis of late 20th-century capitalism. She explains why the failures of free-market capitalism, the rise of the power of finance, and the undermining of the welfare state, cast prisons, and jails as the tools to address the resulting structural poverty and racism in the U.S. Unlike the other books I have selected, Gilmore’s book is not an easy read. It should be read in small doses, with lots of notetaking and Google searching while being read. But in the end, the labor and the resulting enlightenment will be worth their weight in gold and then some. 

By Ruth Wilson Gilmore,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Since 1980, the number of people in U.S. prisons has increased more than 450%. Despite a crime rate that has been falling steadily for decades, California has led the way in this explosion, with what a state analyst called 'the biggest prison building project in the history of the world'. "Golden Gulag" provides the first detailed explanation for that buildup by looking at how political and economic forces, ranging from global to local, conjoined to produce the prison boom. In an informed and impassioned account, Ruth Wilson Gilmore examines this issue through statewide, rural, and urban perspectives to explain how…

Book cover of Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms

Why did I love this book?

As public awareness of mass incarceration has grown, reformers, and even law enforcement, have attempted to build alternatives, policies, and institutions they argue are alternatives to prisons and jails. These alternatives include policies like electronic monitoring, drug courts, halfway houses, lockup mental health facilities, and court supervision. In this book, Law and Schenwar systematically demolish the notion that such initiatives do anything more than widen the net of incarceration. In their view, these “alternatives” create programs and institutions based on the notion that altering the form or style of punishment will eliminate mass incarceration. Instead, they argue this requires the elimination of the paradigm of punishment and the establishment of programs outside the criminal legal system that provide freedom and opportunities for targeted populations. 

By Maya Schenwar, Victoria Law,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

With a new afterword from the authors, the critically praised indictment of widely embraced "alternatives to incarceration"

"But what does it mean-really-to celebrate reforms that convert your home into your prison?" -Michelle Alexander, from the foreword

Electronic monitoring. Locked-down drug treatment centers. House arrest. Mandated psychiatric treatment. Data driven surveillance. Extended probation. These are some of the key alternatives held up as cost effective substitutes for jails and prisons. But in a searing, "cogent critique" (Library Journal), Maya Schenwar and Victoria Law reveal that many of these so-called reforms actually weave in new strands of punishment and control, bringing new…

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