The best books on incarceration in the USA 📚

Browse the best books on incarceration in the USA as recommended by authors, experts, and creators. Along with notes on why they recommend those books.

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Book cover of Solitary

Solitary

By Albert Woodfox

Why this book?

Any understanding of mass incarceration must be grounded in the experience of people who have been incarcerated. Alfred Woodfox’s autobiography of spending more than four decades in prison, the bulk of it in solitary confinement, is both a rich political analysis by a revolutionary who emerged from the Black Panther Party and a deeply troubling account of the tortured existence of hundreds of thousands of people locked away in US prisons for acts that they either did not carry out or for which ridiculously punitive laws and policies in addressing apparent harms done have been applied. No book about prison…

From the list:

The best books about mass incarceration

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Book cover of Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms

Prison by Any Other Name: The Harmful Consequences of Popular Reforms

By Maya Schenwar, Victoria Law

Why this book?

As public awareness of mass incarceration has grown, reformers, and even law enforcement, have attempted to build alternatives, policies, and institutions they argue are alternatives to prisons and jails. These alternatives include policies like electronic monitoring, drug courts, halfway houses, lockup mental health facilities, and court supervision. In this book, Law and Schenwar systematically demolish the notion that such initiatives do anything more than widen the net of incarceration. In their view, these “alternatives” create programs and institutions based on the notion that altering the form or style of punishment will eliminate mass incarceration. Instead, they argue this requires the…

From the list:

The best books about mass incarceration

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

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

By Colin Kaepernick

Why 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…

From the list:

The best books about mass incarceration

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

Partial Justice: Women, Prisons and Social Control

By Nicole Hahn Rafter

Why 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…

From the list:

The best books on the origins of American prisons

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

Breaking the Pendulum: The Long Struggle Over Criminal Justice

By Philip Goodman, Joshua Page, Michelle Phelps

Why 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…

From the list:

The best books on the origins of American prisons

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