100 books like The Crisis of Imprisonment

By Rebecca M. McLennan,

Here are 100 books that The Crisis of Imprisonment fans have personally recommended if you like The Crisis of Imprisonment. Shepherd is a community of 11,000+ authors and super readers sharing their favorite books with the world.

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Book cover of Laboratories of Virtue: Punishment, Revolution, and Authority in Philadelphia, 1760-1835

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.

Why am I passionate about this?

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?

This is one of the first books on prisons I ever read and it’s the one that got me hooked. It’s not just about prisons, though. Laboratories of Virtue is about the period during and after the American Revolution when the US moved away from colonial-era punishments into the beginnings of what we have today. It was a moment when we could have gone in a lot of different directions, but Meranze shows how we ended up with long-term incarceration as our go-to punishment for serious (and some not-so-serious) crimes.

He brings in developments in society generally, explaining how anxieties about theatre and crowds contributed to middle-class and elite reformers’ growing distaste for capital punishment and a preference for privately meting out punishment. This book is a great introduction to how punishment and penal trends are the products of changes in society and perceptions of crime, rather than a direct…

By Michael Meranze,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

Michael Meranze uses Philadelphia as a case study to analyze the relationship between penal reform and liberalism in early America. In Laboratories of Virtue, he interprets the evolving system of criminal punishment as a microcosm of social tensions that characterized the early American republic. Engaging recent work on the history of punishment in England and continental Europe, Meranze traces criminal punishment from the late colonial system of publicly inflicted corporal penalties to the establishment of penitentiaries in the Jacksonian period. Throughout, he reveals a world of class difference and contested values in which those who did not fit the emerging…


Book cover of Worse Than Slavery

Keri Blakinger Author Of Corrections in Ink: A Memoir

From my list on to read in prison.

Why am I passionate about this?

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.

Keri's book list on to read in prison

Keri Blakinger Why did Keri 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 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.

Why am I passionate about this?

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.

Why am I passionate about this?

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 Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison

George Fisher Author Of Beware Euphoria: The Moral Roots and Racial Myths of America's War on Drugs

From my list on profound books on the history of the penitentiary and of its hopes and disappointments.

Why am I passionate about this?

At age eighteen, as a part-time employee of a prisoners’ rights group, I visited an archipelago of decrepit prisons, all relics of an earlier age. My job was gathering inmates’ accounts of bucket toilets, unheated cells, bugs, molds, and rats. Soon after, I began reading and writing about prison reform and its history. And in the many decades since, whether practicing or teaching criminal law, I never lost sight of prisons and their problems. Several of these five books fed my young fascination with prison reform. All of them still challenge me to imagine true and enduring reform.

George's book list on profound books on the history of the penitentiary and of its hopes and disappointments

George Fisher Why did George love this book?

Though Foucault’s book appeared at almost the same moment as Ignatieff’s, Foucault painted a far darker image of early penitentiaries. He cast them not as places of reform but as instruments of disciplinary control, rendering inmates docile and amenable to the monastic repression and routine of schools and factories.

Foucault’s book taught me decades ago that history is crafted, not discovered, and that skilled chroniclers can weave very different plotlines from similar facts.

By Michel Foucault,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Discipline and Punish as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A brilliant work from the most influential philosopher since Sartre.

In this indispensable work, a brilliant thinker suggests that such vaunted reforms as the abolition of torture and the emergence of the modern penitentiary have merely shifted the focus of punishment from the prisoner's body to his soul.


Book cover of The State of the Prisons in England and Wales, With Preliminary Observations, and an Account of Some Foreign Prisons. By John Howard, F.R.S

George Fisher Author Of Beware Euphoria: The Moral Roots and Racial Myths of America's War on Drugs

From my list on profound books on the history of the penitentiary and of its hopes and disappointments.

Why am I passionate about this?

At age eighteen, as a part-time employee of a prisoners’ rights group, I visited an archipelago of decrepit prisons, all relics of an earlier age. My job was gathering inmates’ accounts of bucket toilets, unheated cells, bugs, molds, and rats. Soon after, I began reading and writing about prison reform and its history. And in the many decades since, whether practicing or teaching criminal law, I never lost sight of prisons and their problems. Several of these five books fed my young fascination with prison reform. All of them still challenge me to imagine true and enduring reform.

George's book list on profound books on the history of the penitentiary and of its hopes and disappointments

George Fisher Why did George love this book?

John Howard was the first hero of prison reform. Though born to a life of ease, he risked–and ultimately lost–his life by inspecting prisons throughout Britain at a time when “jail fever,” a form of typhus, killed many of those imprisoned.

Howard’s damning findings of filthy dungeons and corrupt jailers, all chronicled in this book, sparked a reform movement that reached the highest levels of government and endured for a generation.

By John Howard,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The State of the Prisons in England and Wales, With Preliminary Observations, and an Account of Some Foreign Prisons. By John Howard, F.R.S as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The 18th century was a wealth of knowledge, exploration and rapidly growing technology and expanding record-keeping made possible by advances in the printing press. In its determination to preserve the century of revolution, Gale initiated a revolution of its own: digitization of epic proportions to preserve these invaluable works in the largest archive of its kind. Now for the first time these high-quality digital copies of original 18th century manuscripts are available in print, making them highly accessible to libraries, undergraduate students, and independent scholars.
Delve into what it was like to live during the eighteenth century by reading the…


Book cover of A Just Measure of Pain: The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution, 1750-1850

George Fisher Author Of Beware Euphoria: The Moral Roots and Racial Myths of America's War on Drugs

From my list on profound books on the history of the penitentiary and of its hopes and disappointments.

Why am I passionate about this?

At age eighteen, as a part-time employee of a prisoners’ rights group, I visited an archipelago of decrepit prisons, all relics of an earlier age. My job was gathering inmates’ accounts of bucket toilets, unheated cells, bugs, molds, and rats. Soon after, I began reading and writing about prison reform and its history. And in the many decades since, whether practicing or teaching criminal law, I never lost sight of prisons and their problems. Several of these five books fed my young fascination with prison reform. All of them still challenge me to imagine true and enduring reform.

George's book list on profound books on the history of the penitentiary and of its hopes and disappointments

George Fisher Why did George love this book?

Two centuries after Howard’s book awakened Britain to the cruelties of prison confinement, Michael Ignatieff traced the influence of Howard’s program of prison reform. That movement prompted construction across Britain of at least forty-five “reformed” prisons between 1775 and 1795.

When I first read Howard’s and Ignatieff’s books forty-five years ago, they sparked a lifelong interest in prisons, their evils, and how we might reform them.

By Michael Ignatieff,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Just Measure of Pain as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Subtitled "The Penitentiary in the Industrial Revolution 1750-1850", "A Just Measure of Pain" describes the moment in 18th century England when the modern penitentiary and its ambiguous legacy were born. In depicting how the whip, the brand and the gallows - public punishments once meant to cow the unruly poor into passivity - came to be replaced by the "moral management" of the prison and the notion that the criminal poor should be involved in their own rehabilitation. Michael Ignatieff documents the rise of a new conception of class relations and with it a new philosophy of punishment, one directed…


Book cover of The Fabrication of Virtue: English Prison Architecture, 1750-1840

George Fisher Author Of Beware Euphoria: The Moral Roots and Racial Myths of America's War on Drugs

From my list on profound books on the history of the penitentiary and of its hopes and disappointments.

Why am I passionate about this?

At age eighteen, as a part-time employee of a prisoners’ rights group, I visited an archipelago of decrepit prisons, all relics of an earlier age. My job was gathering inmates’ accounts of bucket toilets, unheated cells, bugs, molds, and rats. Soon after, I began reading and writing about prison reform and its history. And in the many decades since, whether practicing or teaching criminal law, I never lost sight of prisons and their problems. Several of these five books fed my young fascination with prison reform. All of them still challenge me to imagine true and enduring reform.

George's book list on profound books on the history of the penitentiary and of its hopes and disappointments

George Fisher Why did George love this book?

Many of Howard’s prescriptions for prison reform focused on the physical plant. His favorite prison architect, William Blackburn, translated Howard’s reform principles into brick and mortar.

Meanwhile, Jeremy Bentham’s “Panopticon” presented a far different and more insidious vision of a circular prison in which each inmate was under the constant surveillance of a guard posted in a central viewing station.

Robin Evans’s gorgeous photographs of the centuries-old remnants of this wave of prison building and prison reform embellish the story told by Howard and Ignatieff.

By Robin Evans,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

First published in 1982, this book describes a new kind of prison architecture that developed in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The book concentrates on architecture, but places it in the context of contemporary penal practice and contemporary thought. Beginning with an exploration on the eighteenth-century prisons before reform, the book goes on to consider two earlier kinds of imprisonment that were modified by eighteenth-century reformers. The theory and practice of prison design is covered in detail. The later parts of the book deals with alliance between architecture and reform, and with the connection between the utilitarian architecture…


Book cover of Lockdown

Christopher Joubert Author Of Briskwood Blood Rain

From my list on apocalyptic events and surviving in confinement.

Why am I passionate about this?

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 American Prison: A Reporter's Undercover Journey into the Business of Punishment

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

From my list on college in US prisons.

Why am I passionate about this?

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?

I could not stop reading this book once I started, and I stayed up late into the night glued to its pages. Bauer, a journalist, takes us inside the prison where he got a job as a correctional officer. Through engrossing prose that pairs his daily experiences with carefully researched historical context about incarceration in the United States, Bauer shows what prisons represent in real time. 

By Shane Bauer,

Why should I read it?

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

What is this book about?

An enraging, necessary look at the private prison system, and a convincing clarion call for prison reform.” —NPR.org

New York Times Book Review 10 Best Books of 2018 * One of President Barack Obama’s favorite books of 2018 * Winner of the 2019 J. Anthony Lukas Book Prize * Winner of the Helen Bernstein Book Award for Excellence in Journalism * Winner of the 2019 RFK Book and Journalism Award * A New York Times Notable Book 

A ground-breaking and brave inside reckoning with the nexus of prison and profit in America: in one Louisiana prison and over the course…


5 book lists we think you will like!

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