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

The Books I Picked & Why

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

By Michelle Alexander

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

Why 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. 


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

By Colin Kaepernick

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

Why 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. 


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Solitary

By Albert Woodfox

Book cover of Solitary

Why 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. 


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Golden Gulag, 21: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California

By Ruth Wilson Gilmore

Book cover of Golden Gulag, 21: Prisons, Surplus, Crisis, and Opposition in Globalizing California

Why 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. 


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

By Maya Schenwar, Victoria Law

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

Why 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. 


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