The best books to read in prison

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...

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.
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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Infinite Jest

Keri Blakinger Why did I love 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.

By David Foster Wallace,

Why should I read it?

5 authors picked Infinite Jest as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

'A writer of virtuostic talents who can seemingly do anything' New York Times

'Wallace is a superb comedian of culture . . . his exuberance and intellectual impishness are a delight' James Wood, Guardian

'He induces the kind of laughter which, when read in bed with a sleeping partner, wakes said sleeping partner up . . . He's damn good' Nicholas Lezard, Guardian

'One of the best books about addiction and recovery to appear in recent memory' Sunday Times

Somewhere in the not-so-distant future the residents of Ennet House, a Boston halfway house for recovering addicts, and students at the…


Book cover of Worse Than Slavery

Keri Blakinger Why did I love 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.

By David M. Oshinsky,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In this sensitively told tale of suffering, brutality, and inhumanity, Worse Than Slavery is an epic history of race and punishment in the deepest South from emancipation to the Civil Rights Era—and beyond.

Immortalized in blues songs and movies like Cool Hand Luke and The Defiant Ones, Mississippi’s infamous Parchman State Penitentiary was, in the pre-civil rights south, synonymous with cruelty. Now, noted historian David Oshinsky gives us the true story of the notorious prison, drawing on police records, prison documents, folklore, blues songs, and oral history, from the days of cotton-field chain gangs to the 1960s, when Parchman was…


Book cover of Felon: Poems

Keri Blakinger Why did I love 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. 

By Reginald Dwayne Betts,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

In fierce, agile poems, Felon tells the story of the effects of incarceration-canvassing a wide range of emotions and experiences through homelessness, underemployment, love, drug abuse, domestic violence, fatherhood and grace-and, in doing so, creates a travelogue for an imagined life. Reginald Dwayne Betts confronts the funk of post-incarceration existence in traditional and newfound forms, from revolutionary found poems created by redacting court documents to the astonishing crown of sonnets that serves as the volume's radiant conclusion.


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

Keri Blakinger Why did I love 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. 

By Liv Arnesen, Ann Bancroft, Cheryl Dahle

Why should I read it?

1 author picked No Horizon Is So Far as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The extraordinary story of the first two women to cross Antarctica

The fascinating chronicle of Liv Arnesen and Ann Bancroft's dramatic journey as the first two women to cross Antarctica, No Horizon Is So Far follows the explorers from the planning of their expedition through their brutal trek from the Norwegian sector all the way to McMurdo Station as they walked, skied, and ice-sailed for almost three months in temperatures reaching as low as -35 DegreesF, all while towing their 250-pound supply sledges across 1,700 miles of ice full of dangerous crevasses. Through website transmissions and satellite phone calls, Ann…


Book cover of Beyond the Pale

Keri Blakinger Why did I love 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.

By Elana Dykewomon,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Winner of the Lambda Literary Award: "A page-turner that brings to life turn-of-the-century New York's Lower East Side." -Library Journal
Born in a Russian-Jewish settlement, Gutke Gurvich is a midwife who immigrates to New York's Lower East Side with her partner, a woman passing as a man. Their story crosses with that of Chava Meyer, a girl who was attended by Gutke at her birth and was later orphaned during the Kishinev pogrom of 1903. Chava has come to America with the family of her cousin Rose, and the two girls begin working at fourteen. As they live through the…


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The Road from Belhaven

By Margot Livesey,

Book cover of The Road from Belhaven

Margot Livesey Author Of The Road from Belhaven

New book alert!

Who am I?

Author Reader Secret orphan Professor Scottish Novelist

Margot's 3 favorite reads in 2023

What is my book about?

The Road from Belhaven is set in 1880s Scotland. Growing up in the care of her grandparents on Belhaven Farm, Lizzie Craig discovers as a small girl that she can see the future. But she soon realises that she must keep her gift a secret. While she can sometimes glimpse the future, she can never change it.

Nor can Lizzie change the feelings that come when a young man named Louis, visiting Belhaven for the harvest, begins to court her. Why have the adults around her never told her that the touch of a hand can change everything? When she follows Louis to Glasgow, she begins to learn the limits of his devotion and the complexities of her own affections.

The Road from Belhaven

By Margot Livesey,

What is this book about?

From the New York Times best-selling author of The Flight of Gemma Hardy, a novel about a young woman whose gift of second sight complicates her coming of age in late-nineteenth-century Scotland

Growing up in the care of her grandparents on Belhaven Farm, Lizzie Craig discovers as a small child that she can see into the future. But her gift is selective—she doesn’t, for instance, see that she has an older sister who will come to join the family. As her “pictures” foretell various incidents and accidents, she begins to realize a painful truth: she may glimpse the future, but…


5 book lists we think you will like!

Interested in criminal justice, addiction, and Antarctica?

10,000+ authors have recommended their favorite books and what they love about them. Browse their picks for the best books about criminal justice, addiction, and Antarctica.

Criminal Justice Explore 39 books about criminal justice
Addiction Explore 51 books about addiction
Antarctica Explore 47 books about Antarctica