The best books about the criminal industrial complex

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?

The New Jim Crow is essentially a beginner's guide to the Criminal Industrial Complex. The first time I read it I was still in prison. And let me tell you, it was an infuriating experience. I was sitting in a cell being told everything that had led me, on a societal level, to exactly where I was in that moment. It showed me, in plain terms, everything that would be stacked against me if I ever got released. But it also gave me a certain freedom to understand how to escape the criminal justice system’s traps when I got out. Eventually, we made it mandatory reading in my book club, The Book Crushers, so we could give the other men incarcerated at Patuxent the same knowledge I had gained from it.


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The Black Butterfly: The Harmful Politics of Race and Space in America

By Lawrence T. Brown

Book cover of The Black Butterfly: The Harmful Politics of Race and Space in America

Why this book?

I’ve lived in Baltimore ever since I was released from prison. And one thing you can’t escape if you live here is the reality of the deep segregation of this city. If you look at the racial makeup of each neighborhood on a map, the Black neighborhoods make up the shape of a butterfly. This is what I witnessed my friend, Dr. Brown set out to interrogate when he began researching this book.

This book personally helped me contextualize my own experiences within these systems. It gave me a deeper understanding of everything that had been working against me leading up to my prison sentence. And it has fueled my fire to challenge the overtly racist systems that are still at work today.


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Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

By Bryan Stevenson

Book cover of Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption

Why this book?

This book is heartbreaking. It will show you exactly how much we devalue human lives in this society. To me, it demonstrates just how real the threat of the unimaginable is to Black people in this country. At any moment, being in the wrong place at the wrong time can permanently alter your life, even kill you.

It also illustrates something I’ve always known to be true, the deep fallibility of the criminal justice system. How can we sentence someone to death when our system not only is wrong all the time, but also sets people up for these outcomes?


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Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison

By Shaka Senghor

Book cover of Writing My Wrongs: Life, Death, and Redemption in an American Prison

Why this book?

Shaka Senghor is a friend and a personal inspiration of mine. This book is dear to me, not only because it’s the story of my friend, but also because, in many ways, it’s the story of my life as well. Shaka taught me so many valuable lessons in this book: the importance of writing down your goals, of having a plan, of overcoming the fear of failure. And it was just the beginning of all the flourishing I’ve seen Shaka do, and all the flourishing he has inspired from me.

While many books on my list will make you sad, angry, or both, I think this one will make you feel hopeful. It definitely did for me.


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Man’s Search for Meaning

By Viktor Frankl

Book cover of Man’s Search for Meaning

Why this book?

While Man’s Search for Meaning is not about the American criminal justice system, it is a foundational text about oppression and what it’s like to be a prisoner. It helped me confront my own feelings about being incarcerated and being a prisoner. It was deeply painful to read, but it gave me insight into the human mind in a way that ultimately felt liberating. And, maybe unromantically, it really helped me understand despair. My situation could always be worse. It helped me decide to finally change my life.


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