95 books like American Prison

By Shane Bauer,

Here are 95 books that American Prison fans have personally recommended if you like American Prison. Shepherd is a community of 9,000+ authors and super readers sharing their favorite books with the world.

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Book cover of College in Prison: Reading in an Age of Mass Incarceration

Mneesha Gellman Author Of Education Behind the Wall: Why and How We Teach College in Prison

From my list on college in US prisons.

Who am I?

I have been involved with teaching in prison for the last 22 years, and have taught everything from creative writing to meditation to college classes across carceral facilities in New York, California, and Massachusetts. As the founder and director of the Emerson Prison Initiative at Emerson College’s campus at Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Concord, I constantly work with faculty and students who are navigating the teaching and learning environment under some of the most adverse circumstances. These books have helped me feel less alone in this work.

Mneesha's book list on college in US prisons

Mneesha Gellman Why did Mneesha love this book?

In Daniel Karpowitz’s book, he takes readers behind the scenes in college-in-prison classrooms to explore what a liberal arts education can offer people who are incarcerated, and the educators who facilitate them. Karpowitz was a mentor and a guide as I was building my own college-in-prison program. His steadfast belief in the human capacity for transformative learning shines through in these accessible, riveting pages of what it means to read the canon from a position of marginalization.

By Daniel Karpowitz,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The nationally renowned Bard Prison Initiative demonstrates how the liberal arts can alter the landscape inside prisons by expanding access to the transformative power of American higher education. American colleges and universities have made various efforts to provide prisoners with access to education. However, few of these outreach programs presume that incarcerated men and women can rise to the challenge of a truly rigorous college curriculum. The Bard Prison Initiative, however, is different. As this compelling new book reveals, BPI has fostered a remarkable transformation in the lives of thousands of prisoners. College in Prison chronicles how, since 2001, Bard…


Book cover of Critical Perspectives on Teaching in Prison: Students and Instructors on Pedagogy Behind the Wall

Mneesha Gellman Author Of Education Behind the Wall: Why and How We Teach College in Prison

From my list on college in US prisons.

Who am I?

I have been involved with teaching in prison for the last 22 years, and have taught everything from creative writing to meditation to college classes across carceral facilities in New York, California, and Massachusetts. As the founder and director of the Emerson Prison Initiative at Emerson College’s campus at Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Concord, I constantly work with faculty and students who are navigating the teaching and learning environment under some of the most adverse circumstances. These books have helped me feel less alone in this work.

Mneesha's book list on college in US prisons

Mneesha Gellman Why did Mneesha love this book?

There has been a gap in the literature of books speaking to what it actually means to teach students in prison, and Ginsburg’s book contributes to filling it. Through careful curation, Ginsburg’s edited volume is a highly useful resource for anyone considering teaching in prison, or looking for reading to reflect on teaching that has already taken place.

By Rebecca Ginsburg (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Critical Perspectives on Teaching in Prison as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

This volume makes a case for engaging critical approaches for teaching adults in prison higher education (or "college-in-prison") programs. This book not only contextualizes pedagogy within the specialized and growing niche of prison instruction, but also addresses prison abolition, reentry, and educational equity. Chapters are written by prison instructors, currently incarcerated students, and formerly incarcerated students, providing a variety of perspectives on the many roadblocks and ambitions of teaching and learning in carceral settings. All unapologetic advocates of increasing access to higher education for people in prison, contributors discuss the high stakes of teaching incarcerated individuals and address the dynamics,…


Book cover of Higher Education Accessibility Behind and Beyond Prison Walls

Mneesha Gellman Author Of Education Behind the Wall: Why and How We Teach College in Prison

From my list on college in US prisons.

Who am I?

I have been involved with teaching in prison for the last 22 years, and have taught everything from creative writing to meditation to college classes across carceral facilities in New York, California, and Massachusetts. As the founder and director of the Emerson Prison Initiative at Emerson College’s campus at Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Concord, I constantly work with faculty and students who are navigating the teaching and learning environment under some of the most adverse circumstances. These books have helped me feel less alone in this work.

Mneesha's book list on college in US prisons

Mneesha Gellman Why did Mneesha love this book?

McMay and Kimble’s edited volume brings together a wide range of case studies looking at some form of higher education behind bars. Meant to showcase many different forms of higher education in prison, this book underscores the diversity of what higher education in prison can look like. In each case study, strengths and challenges of a given approach are visible and provide an honest look at how to support learners in a range of circumstances.

*Disclaimer—I have a chapter in this volume.

By Dani V. McMay (editor), Rebekah D. Kimble (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Higher Education Accessibility Behind and Beyond Prison Walls as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Numerous studies indicate that completing a college degree reduces an individual's likelihood of recidivating. However, there is little research available to inform best practices for running college programs inside jails or prisons or supporting returning citizens who want to complete a college degree. Higher Education Accessibility Behind and Beyond Prison Walls examines program development and pedagogical techniques in the area of higher education for students who are currently incarcerated or completing a degree post-incarceration. Drawing on the experiences of program administrators and professors from across the country, it offers best practices for (1) developing, running, and teaching in college programs…


Book cover of We Want to Do More Than Survive: Abolitionist Teaching and the Pursuit of Educational Freedom

Mneesha Gellman Author Of Education Behind the Wall: Why and How We Teach College in Prison

From my list on college in US prisons.

Who am I?

I have been involved with teaching in prison for the last 22 years, and have taught everything from creative writing to meditation to college classes across carceral facilities in New York, California, and Massachusetts. As the founder and director of the Emerson Prison Initiative at Emerson College’s campus at Massachusetts Correctional Institution at Concord, I constantly work with faculty and students who are navigating the teaching and learning environment under some of the most adverse circumstances. These books have helped me feel less alone in this work.

Mneesha's book list on college in US prisons

Mneesha Gellman Why did Mneesha love this book?

Ok, this book is not specifically about teaching in prison, but it is about teaching from an abolitionist perspective, which is relevant to the same readers interested in teaching in prison. I first read it as part of a National Alliance for Higher Education in Prison’s book group, along with my colleagues from the Emerson Prison Initiative. Love makes the argument that education merely for survival does a disservice to humanness, and transactional education reinforces social hierarchies. Alternatively, abolitionist teaching looks to connect education to liberation.

By Bettina L. Love,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked We Want to Do More Than Survive as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Winner of the 2020 Society of Professors of Education Outstanding Book Award

Drawing on personal stories, research, and historical events, an esteemed educator offers a vision of educational justice inspired by the rebellious spirit and methods of abolitionists.

Drawing on her life’s work of teaching and researching in urban schools, Bettina Love persuasively argues that educators must teach students about racial violence, oppression, and how to make sustainable change in their communities through radical civic initiatives and movements. She argues that the US educational system is maintained by and profits from the suffering of children of color. Instead of trying…


Book cover of Lockdown

Christopher Joubert Author Of Briskwood Blood Rain

From my list on apocalyptic events and surviving in confinement.

Who am I?

Apocalyptic novels have always been a favorite genre of mine. It’s interesting seeing the lengths that people will go through to survive when all factors are stacked against them. The list of novels below is some of the many great reads that opened my eyes to this genre. The characters in these novels are oftentimes faced with challenges that seem impossible to the reader but are left feeling so fulfilled after seeing a character complete the difficult tasks. I hope you enjoy the books on this list as much as I have!

Christopher's book list on apocalyptic events and surviving in confinement

Christopher Joubert Why did Christopher love this book?

Although this novel is not necessarily ‘apocalyptic,’ I couldn’t help but include it. Alexander Gordon Smith’s Lockdown is a high-stakes novel that follows Alex, a teenager who is wrongly accused of murder and sentenced to an underground prison. The Furnace Penitentiary is not a normal prison, but is a building where inhumane experiments take place. I’ve always been fascinated by characters who have to survive in an environment they cannot physically leave, and the Escape from Furnace series does this beautifully.

By Alexander Gordon Smith,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Lockdown as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it. This book is for kids age 12, 13, 14, and 15.

What is this book about?

Prison Break meets Darren Shan in an unforgettable story of terror, evil and intrigue. Alexander Gordon Smith's cult teen series has been reissued with the bestselling US covers.

Beneath heaven is hell.
Beneath hell is Furnace.

When thirteen-year-old Alex is framed for murder, his life changes forever. Now he is an inmate in the Furnace Penitentiary - the toughest prison in the world for young offenders. A vast building sunk deep into the ground, there's one way in and no way out.

But rowdy inmates and sadistic guards are the least of Alex's problems. Every night an inmate is taken…


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

Nancy Hiemstra Author Of Detain and Deport: The Chaotic U.S. Immigration Enforcement Regime

From my list on why the U.S. has the biggest immigration detention system.

Who am I?

I first became aware of harms of immigration enforcement policies while volunteering to tutor kids of undocumented migrant farmworkers in the 1990s. Through a variety of jobs in the U.S. and Latin America, my eyes were opened to reasons driving people to migrate and challenges immigrants face. I eventually went to graduate school in Geography to study local to transnational reverberations of immigration policies. A project in Ecuador where I helped families of people detained in the U.S. led me to realize how huge, cruel, and ineffective U.S. immigration detention is. I hope these books help you break through myths about detention and make sense of the chaos.

Nancy's book list on why the U.S. has the biggest immigration detention system

Nancy Hiemstra Why did Nancy love this book?

This book is key to understanding the economic, political, and social drivers behind the rise of the incarceration industry, which moved on to promote and expand immigration detention using the same playbook.

Ruth Wilson Gilmore provides a powerful case study of the explosive growth of California’s prison system since the 1980s. The book traces how corporate lobbyists for the prison industry took advantage of local economic downturn and racist narratives to push new laws that massively increased the number of people incarcerated, fueling a prison boom.

While a depressing account, Gilmore leaves the reader with a sense of hope and purpose by recounting the rise of a determined grassroots movement fighting the hungry carceral industry, with lessons that can be transferred to stopping detention expansion.

By Ruth Wilson Gilmore,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked Golden Gulag as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Since 1980, the number of people in U.S. prisons has increased more than 450%. Despite a crime rate that has been falling steadily for decades, California has led the way in this explosion, with what a state analyst called 'the biggest prison building project in the history of the world'. "Golden Gulag" provides the first detailed explanation for that buildup by looking at how political and economic forces, ranging from global to local, conjoined to produce the prison boom. In an informed and impassioned account, Ruth Wilson Gilmore examines this issue through statewide, rural, and urban perspectives to explain how…


Book cover of Partial Justice: Women, Prisons and Social Control

Ashley Rubin Author Of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

From my list on the origins of American prisons.

Who am I?

I have been captivated by the study of prisons since my early college years. The fact that prisons are so new in human history still feels mind-blowing to me. I used to think that prisons have just always been around, but when you realize they are actually new, that has major implications. This is nowhere more clear than at the beginning: how hard it was to get to the point where prisons made sense to people, to agree on how prisons should be designed and managed, and to keep on the same path when prisons very quickly started to fail. It’s still puzzling to me.

Ashley's book list on the origins of American prisons

Ashley Rubin Why did Ashley love this book?

Prisons were originally built for men (really, white men), not for women. But women were sent to prison, just not in big enough numbers to merit their own facilities until much later. Women were also viewed as a difficult population by reformers and prison administrators alike: Women who committed crimes were deemed so morally repugnant that they could not be rehabilitated, so the routines and purposes of prisons seemed not to apply to them (prisons were originally supposed to rehabilitate their prisoners).

As a small and unprofitable population (because they were assigned unprofitable labor like sewing and laundry), women prisoners were considered especially burdensome. Using the prison histories of three differently situated states, Rafter describes the experiences of incarcerated women and how those experiences were shaped by their unique position and the biases about women criminals.

By Nicole Hahn Rafter,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Contemporary Research on crime, prisons, and social control has largely ignored women. Partial Justice, the only full-scale study of the origins and development of women's prisons in the United States, traces their evolution from the late eighteenth century to the present day. It shows that the character of penal treatment was involved in the very definition of womanhood for incarcerated women, a definition that varied by race and social class.Rafter traces the evolution of women's prisons, showing that it followed two markedly different models. Custodial institutions for women literally grew out of men's penitentiaries, starting from a separate room for…


Book cover of Breaking the Pendulum: The Long Struggle Over Criminal Justice

Ashley Rubin Author Of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

From my list on the origins of American prisons.

Who am I?

I have been captivated by the study of prisons since my early college years. The fact that prisons are so new in human history still feels mind-blowing to me. I used to think that prisons have just always been around, but when you realize they are actually new, that has major implications. This is nowhere more clear than at the beginning: how hard it was to get to the point where prisons made sense to people, to agree on how prisons should be designed and managed, and to keep on the same path when prisons very quickly started to fail. It’s still puzzling to me.

Ashley's book list on the origins of American prisons

Ashley Rubin Why did Ashley love this book?

Unlike my other recommendations, this book takes a longer historical view of the prison and also provides a more sociological framework for understanding trends in penal history, focusing on the prison but also its sister punishments like parole and probation. Breaking the Pendulum focuses on the full history of the prison in the United States, from its origins to now. But more importantly, it synthesizes the state-of-the-art knowledge from punishment studies about how to think about and understand punishment: points like recognizing geographical variation rather than focusing on the national picture and recognizing that even periods that seem to be fairly homogenous in their penal policies are actually periods with a lot of hidden debate.

From there, it moves away from the standard narrative of a pendulum swinging between punitive and rehabilitative or liberal and conservative approaches to punishment to a more accurate and mixed picture, and for thinking about…

By Philip Goodman, Joshua Page, Michelle Phelps

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

The history of criminal justice in the U.S. is often described as a pendulum, swinging back and forth between strict punishment and lenient rehabilitation. While this view is common wisdom, it is wrong. In Breaking the Pendulum, Philip Goodman, Joshua Page, and Michelle Phelps systematically debunk the pendulum perspective, showing that it distorts how and why criminal justice changes. The pendulum model blinds us to the blending of penal orientations, policies, and
practices, as well as the struggle between actors that shapes laws, institutions, and how we think about crime, punishment, and related issues.

Through a re-analysis of more than…


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

James Kilgore Author Of Understanding Mass Incarceration: A People's Guide to the Key Civil Rights Struggle of Our Time

From my list on mass incarceration.

Who am I?

I've been a social justice activist all my life. In my younger years, I turned to violence to bring about liberation. That landed me a federal arrest warrant which I avoided for 27 years by living as a fugitive. I spent most of that time in southern Africa, joining freedom movements against apartheid and colonialism. Arrested and extradited to the U.S. in 2002 I spent 6 1/2 years in California prisons while observing the impact of mass incarceration. I vowed to direct my energy to end mass incarceration through grassroots organizing. Since then I've been a writer, researcher, and activist in my local community of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois as well as being partner and father to my two sons.

James' book list on mass incarceration

James Kilgore Why did James love 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. 

By Colin Kaepernick (editor),

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Abolition for the People as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Edited by activist and former San Francisco 49ers super bowl quarterback Colin Kaepernick, Abolition for the People is a manifesto calling for a world beyond prisons and policing.

Abolition for the People brings together thirty essays representing a diversity of voices―political prisoners, grassroots organizers, scholars, and relatives of those killed by the anti-Black terrorism of policing and prisons. This collection presents readers with a moral choice: “Will you continue to be actively complicit in the perpetuation of these systems,” Kaepernick asks in his introduction, “or will you take action to dismantle them for the benefit of a just future?”

Powered…


Book cover of The Crisis of Imprisonment: Protest, Politics, and the Making of the American Penal State, 1776-1941

Ashley Rubin Author Of The Deviant Prison: Philadelphia's Eastern State Penitentiary and the Origins of America's Modern Penal System, 1829-1913

From my list on the origins of American prisons.

Who am I?

I have been captivated by the study of prisons since my early college years. The fact that prisons are so new in human history still feels mind-blowing to me. I used to think that prisons have just always been around, but when you realize they are actually new, that has major implications. This is nowhere more clear than at the beginning: how hard it was to get to the point where prisons made sense to people, to agree on how prisons should be designed and managed, and to keep on the same path when prisons very quickly started to fail. It’s still puzzling to me.

Ashley's book list on the origins of American prisons

Ashley Rubin Why did Ashley love this book?

In The Crisis of Imprisonment, McLennan examines the role of labor in the early prisons through to the Second World War. Labor was central to the motivation for adopting prisons, but also to their regular routines and functioning. After the Civil War, however, labor unions and others opposed to prisoner labor became more effective at restricting the sale of prisoner-made products, which helped to undermine the order of prisons.

The second half of the book explores the question of how do you maintain order in prisons if its central lynchpin is no longer available. It also has rich discussions on resistance and protests both inside and outside of prisons (not everyone wanted prisons, even early on, or liked how they were organized, even the people running them) and on the origin of prisoners’ “civil death” or rights-less status. Bonus: I love the introduction to this book. The prison riot…

By Rebecca M. McLennan,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

America's prison-based system of punishment has not always enjoyed the widespread political and moral legitimacy it has today. In this groundbreaking reinterpretation of penal history, Rebecca McLennan covers the periods of deep instability, popular protest, and political crisis that characterized early American prisons. She details the debates surrounding prison reform, including the limits of state power, the influence of market forces, the role of unfree labor, and the 'just deserts' of wrongdoers. McLennan also explores the system that existed between the War of 1812 and the Civil War, where private companies relied on prisoners for labor. Finally, she discusses the…


5 book lists we think you will like!

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