The best books to read in prison

Keri Blakinger Author Of Corrections in Ink: A Memoir
By Keri Blakinger

Who am I?

Now, I’m a journalist who covers prisons—but a decade ago I was in prison myself. I’d landed there on a heroin charge after years of struggling with addiction as I bumbled my way through college. Behind bars, I read voraciously, almost as if making up for all the assignments I’d left half-done during my drug years. As I slowly learned to rebuild and reinvent myself, I also learned about recovery and hope, and the reality of our nation’s carceral system really is. Hopefully, these books might help you learn those things, too.

I wrote...

Corrections in Ink: A Memoir

By Keri Blakinger,

Book cover of Corrections in Ink: A Memoir

What is my book about?

Growing up, Keri Blakinger threw herself into competitive figure skating with an all-consuming passion that led her to nationals. But when her skating career suddenly fell apart, that meant diving into self-destruction. For the next nine years, Keri ricocheted from one dark place to the next: living on the streets, selling drugs and sex, and shooting up. Then, on a cold day during her senior year, the police caught her walking down the street with a Tupperware full of heroin.

Her arrest made the front page of the local news and landed her behind bars for nearly two years. Along the way, she met women from all walks of life. Keri came to understand how broken the justice system is and who that brokenness hurts the most.

The books I picked & why

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Infinite Jest

By David Foster Wallace,

Book cover of Infinite Jest

Why this book?

One of the best criteria for a book to read in prison is length. Sometimes it’s hard to get more books quickly, and since some facilities have limits on how many books you can have at one time, the longer the better. At 1,079 pages, David Foster Wallace certainly delivers on that front. In the free world, that might seem like a bit of a slog but the book is also funny and has some nuggets of wisdom about addiction and recovery that resonated with me when I read it a decade ago during a brief stint in solitary confinement.

Worse Than Slavery

By David M. Oshinsky,

Book cover of Worse Than Slavery

Why this book?

One thing prisons purposely do not do is teach you anything about the history of prisons. If you want to do that, you’ll have to do it on your own—and Oshinsky is such a great start. His 1996 book details the roots of Parchman prison in Mississippi and draws a line from slavery to convict leasing to modern-day penal farms.

Felon: Poems

By Reginald Dwayne Betts,

Book cover of Felon: Poems

Why this book?

I read so much poetry in prison—words about survival, and loss, and absence. But one thing I did not read was poetry about people who’d been in prison like me, and wish I had. This poetry collection wasn’t out then, but I think I would have loved it if it were. 

No Horizon Is So Far: Two Women and Their Historic Journey Across Antarctica

By Liv Arnesen, Ann Bancroft, Cheryl Dahle

Book cover of No Horizon Is So Far: Two Women and Their Historic Journey Across Antarctica

Why this book?

This book is hard to find, but it was in the Tompkins County Jail Library and I fell in love on the first page, when the authors began describing the process of finding the inner strength to finish a seemingly impossible journey.  In their case, the journey was an Antarctic expedition—but the words felt surprisingly germane to my own journey through the legal system.

“Success on an expedition (as in life),” the authors wrote, “isn’t about brute strength, or even endurance, but resilience: the ability to remind oneself, over and over, of the joy of living, even amid the greatest hardship.”

I copied those words into the inside of a notebook and read them back to myself again and again until I’d nearly memorized them. Before jail, it wasn’t even the sort of thing I would have typically read. But being locked up forced me to try out books I would have once ignored, because in jail I didn’t always have a choice. 

Beyond the Pale

By Elana Dykewomon,

Book cover of Beyond the Pale

Why this book?

When I read this book the first time, I was on heroin and bumbling my way through college. But the combination of magical realism and queerness and historical fiction struck such a perfect chord that I lost myself in the music of the Dykewoman’s pages. That—a book you can lose yourself in completely—is exactly the sort of thing you want in prison. Anything that lets you utterly forget about the present even for a few moments feels like forbidden magic.

5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in criminal justice, addiction, and poetry?

5,887 authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about criminal justice, addiction, and poetry.

Criminal Justice Explore 19 books about criminal justice
Addiction Explore 31 books about addiction
Poetry Explore 204 books about poetry

And, 3 books we think you will enjoy!

We think you will like The Crisis of Imprisonment, Partial Justice, and House of Leaves if you like this list.