The best books about the criminal industrial complex

Who am I?

I am a victim of the Criminal Industrial Complex. Before being sentenced to life in prison at 17, I lived in neighborhoods that were overpoliced and violent, I went to schools that were underfunded and didn’t have the resources to support my education, and the crack epidemic and subsequent War on Drugs did irreparable damage to my family. The systems discussed in these books are the ones that fundamentally changed the course of my life. In the long run, I was able to succeed despite these systems. Read these books and understand the many odds that are stacked against so many members of our society. People just like me.

I wrote...

Book cover of The Master Plan: My Journey from Life in Prison to a Life of Purpose

What is my book about?

Growing up in a tough Washington, D.C., neighborhood, Chris Wilson was so afraid for his life he wouldn't leave the house without a gun. One night, defending himself, he killed a man. At eighteen, he was sentenced to life in prison with no hope of parole.

But what should have been the end of his story became the beginning. Deciding to make something of his life, Chris embarked on a journey of self-improvement–reading, working out, learning languages, even starting a business. He wrote his Master Plan: a list of all he expected to accomplish or acquire. He worked his plan every day for years, and in his mid-thirties, he did the impossible: he convinced a judge to reduce his sentence and became a free man. 

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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?

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.

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

Why did I love 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.

By Lawrence T. Brown,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The best-selling look at how American cities can promote racial equity, end redlining, and reverse the damaging health- and wealth-related effects of segregation.

The world gasped in April 2015 as Baltimore erupted and Black Lives Matter activists, incensed by Freddie Gray's brutal death in police custody, shut down highways and marched on city streets. In The Black Butterfly-a reference to the fact that Baltimore's majority-Black population spreads out like a butterfly's wings on both sides of the coveted strip of real estate running down the center of the city-Lawrence T. Brown reveals that ongoing historical trauma caused by a combination…

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

Why did I love 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?

By Bryan Stevenson,

Why should I read it?

6 authors picked Just Mercy as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?



A #1 New York Times bestseller, this is a powerful, true story about the potential for mercy to redeem us, and a clarion call to fix America's broken justice system, as seen in the HBO documentary True Justice.

The US has the highest rate of incarceration in the world. One in every 15 people born there today is expected to go to prison. For black men this figure rises to one…

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

Why did I love 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.

By Shaka Senghor,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Writing My Wrongs as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • An “extraordinary, unforgettable” (Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow) memoir of redemption and second chances amidst America’s mass incarceration epidemic, from a member of Oprah’s SuperSoul 100

Shaka Senghor was raised in a middle-class neighborhood on Detroit’s east side during the height of the 1980s crack epidemic. An honor roll student and a natural leader, he dreamed of becoming a doctor—but at age eleven, his parents’ marriage began to unravel, and beatings from his mother worsened, which sent him on a downward spiral. He ran away from home, turned to drug dealing to…

Book cover of Man’s Search for Meaning

Why did I love 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.

By Viktor Frankl,

Why should I read it?

36 authors picked Man’s Search for Meaning as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

One of the outstanding classics to emerge from the Holocaust, Man's Search for Meaning is Viktor Frankl's story of his struggle for survival in Auschwitz and other Nazi concentration camps. Today, this remarkable tribute to hope offers us an avenue to finding greater meaning and purpose in our own lives.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in criminal justice, drug trafficking, and African-American men?

9,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about criminal justice, drug trafficking, and African-American men.

Criminal Justice Explore 34 books about criminal justice
Drug Trafficking Explore 12 books about drug trafficking
African-American Men Explore 22 books about African-American men

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